Otherland 2: River of Blue Fire - Tad Williams
After all the build-up (i.e. the entire first book), I was hoping the plot would start to take shape in part 2. Our heroes are trapped in the net, the evil billionaires' evil plan is about to come to fruition, and most of the minor sub-plots seemed just about wrapped up. Maybe now we can get to the story?
Well, it appears not. Instead, the characters potter about and meander through the virtual worlds, getting into scrapes and getting out of them again, with no particular direction or purpose. They're on a quest for... something, and they have to go... somewhere, but no-one really knows where or what, so they just wander around, keeping themselves busy while Williams plays at world-building. He may well have enjoyed himself, creating all those crazy net-worlds, but it's no substitute for writing an actual story. The nearest we get to plot development is Paul finally realising he's in a simulation (duh), and the characters figuring out that the place was created by very old rich men who want eternal life (duh, again) - that's half a sentence, not an 800-page novel.
The task of suspending disbelief is made even harder this time round by the characters' insistence on questioning everything they see - quite apart from the oft-repeated "if we die here, do we die in real life as well?" which gets tedious very quickly. "Surely a giant praying mantis wouldn't behave like that!" they say. "It must be all in the programming! And how strange it is that I can vomit, despite it not being real!" It sounds rather like some cringing apology from the author, who knows it's all a bit stupid but wants to pre-empt the outraged criticism. Likewise with some of the worlds - in one instance, two of the characters get caught up in a battle between giant animated vegetables and some pirates made of gravy. It's sort of played for laughs, but comes across like a custard-pie sequence in an Alien film.
The sub-plots don't do much for it, either. No, they weren't all finished off in book 1, they are still going, and this time they've multiplied! Now we have not just the cackling cartoon psychopath, but also his colleague, and a cop who's picked up his trail; Renie's dad gets a couple of chapters, as does their friend Jeremiah; the lawyer of Orlando's parents gets some screen-time and so does a woman he contacts in relation to Orlando's illness, and the little girl Christabel still pops in occasionally even though she does pretty much nothing. What are they all doing there? Why do they need their own chapters? Is their contribution really necessary, and wasn't there a better way of getting that information across?
The settings are what Otherland is really about, but even those are not all that exciting. Most are either real-life or historical scenarios with a twist, or warped versions of literary settings - a War of the Worlds where the Martians are victorious; a Land of Oz where Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion enact some bizarre post-apocalyptic wargame; the chessboard of Through the Looking Glass where the Red Queen has won and spreads tyranny throughout the land. It all seems faintly stale and derivative - even the central motif of the river connecting all the lands has been used before, in the Riverland saga as well as Endymion and probably other places too.
Overall, the book is just suffocating under its own weight. So far there's not been enough story to fill one book, let alone two, and there are still two more to go. A good editor with a big pair of shears might have saved this by trimming it down to a fraction of its length, but unfortunately Williams has been given free rein to cram in as many worlds and characters as he can think of. Luckily there's a summary chapter at the start of volumes 3 and 4, so I think I'll just read those instead and skip to the end for the conclusion. All I'll be missing is a load of explanatory waffle and some bad dialogue, and life's too short to sit through two more books of that.