Shardik by Richard Adams (book review).

May 29, 2015 | By | Reply More

Richard Adams’ second novel ‘Shardik’, published two years after the massively successful ‘Watership Down’, is a true beast of a book. The novel’s size and scope reflects the eponymous beast itself, it is in places intense and cutting and at other points the story wanders, lost in the forest.


A brief explanation of the story: Kelderek is our key protagonist, a hunter for his village who is known for his child-like qualities, a lack of maturity. Out in the forest, a fire has raged and driven a huge bear into his path. The bear saves Kelderek from an encounter with a leopard. Kelderek believes that the animal is Shardik, a bear invested with the power of God. He alerts his village and the High Priestess of their religion who come to believe that Kelderek is now a herald and disciple of Shardik. The encounter sets in motion a chain of events that prompts the village to attack a nearby town, changing the land’s rulers and then prompts a meeting with slave owners, leading Shardik into a final bloody confrontation.

That’s the brief version. In fact, ‘Shardik’ explores all aspects of the world that Kelderek inhabits and tells a tale within which one can find many religious parallels, especially to the stories of Jesus and Moses. Though described as a fantasy novel, there is nothing particularly ‘fantastic’ about the world of ‘Shardik’. It is full pain, fear, hope and perseverance, just like the real world. In fact, one comment about an ancient Goddess proves that our two worlds are connected.

Adams draws many of the characters in the book brilliantly. Kelderek’s child-like reasoning about Shardik is compelling and, at times, deliberately frustrating. His siding with the ambitious and ruthless Ta-Kominion feels a little forced, but you realise that he has to make mistakes in order to learn. Other characters, such as Genshed the slave trader, are closer to pure evil, a sadist who encourages others to adopt his own brutal behaviours.

Shardik remains the most compelling of all the characters, though, acting just as a bear might, angry at being caged, fearful of fire, looking for food, warmth and shelter. The action is driven through how different people interpret these behaviours and use them to force their own agendas. As an examination of how religion can organise and drive people it is very powerful.

One can only imagine the impact of ‘Shardik’ had on readers in 1974, who had enjoyed ‘Watership Down’. It is a huge book, both in concepts and length. It may appear daunting at first, but Adams is such a skilled writer that the novel will compel you to progress. At times, it does feel like the narrative wanders, but this didn’t impair my enjoyment all that much.

It may not be much of a fantasy novel, but ‘Shardik’ is worth a considerable investment of your time. A good story about what drives man and how he interprets the signs all around him. At points, you may be angry or frustrated with the characters, but this is part of the spell that the novel has cast. It envelops you in its atmosphere.

John Rivers

May 2015

(pub: OneWorld. 592 page enlarged paperback. Price: £16.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78074-663-0. Ebook: ISBN: 978-1-78074-664-7)

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Category: Books, Horror

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