It may surprise you to hear that I was once one of the unfortunate victims of this opening salvo. Several times, in fact. The first time I picked up The Dragonbone Chair, I was 17 or so. I’d read Tolkien and Brooks, Salvatore, some Fiest, and other high-action secondary world/adventure fantasy. I desperately wanted to like Williams’ work, but I bounced off of the Hayholt like a bag of mud flung from a trebuchet. A few months later, I tried again, finished the first book, started Stone of Farewell, and bounced again. Then again, a time after that. No matter how much I wanted to like it, it was the wrong book at the wrong time. Fast-forward several years, after I’d discovered Robin Hobb and George R.R. Martin, and loved the first volume in Williams’ second fantasy series, Shadowmarch. I came back to Memory, Sorrow and Thorn with a new appreciation for layered epics, and I devoured it. Despite having read The Dragonbone Chair three or four times by that point, I couldn’t put it down.
What at first seemed slow or meandering suddenly revealed itself as rich and intricate. Every step of Simon’s journey, from his early days climbing Green Angel Tower and evading Rachel the Dragon, to his first encounters with the mysterious Sithi, to his confrontation with a dragon, is significant. There are many words, but they are never wasted—instead, they are each a drop in a vast, ancient ocean. Few series—even those many times longer than Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, like Steven Erikson’s Malazan or Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time—have left me feeling quite so startled by a world that seems to truly exist outside the pages of its books.
It’s marvelous to watch Williams add layer after layer to his myths, subverting what you think you know about the world as he reveals the tender vulnerability of the Sithi, the vengeance-fueled rage of the Norns. Many of the trilogy’s myths, histories, and religions are echoes from our own world—clear parallels to, among others, King Arthur, Baba Yaga, and Amaterasu appear at various points. This crossover, most prevalent during the first half of The Dragonbone Chair, when Williams is clearly still feeling his way through the world, grounds the world of Osten Ard, and gives it an ancient gravitas other created worlds have trouble replicating. It feels ancient, lived in.
I believe this is in part because Williams was discovering the world—its myths, its boundaries, its characters—at the same pace as the reader. Consider this, from his introduction to the 2004 edition of The Dragonbone Chair:
“As I wrote, I discovered things that hadn’t been in my outline, found the history of Osten Ard growing thicker and more complex almost by itself, and ran across serendipitous little bits that seemed to explain other ideas with which I had been toying. I invented characters like the monk Cadrach or the wise woman Geloë who were meant to be little more than interesting walk-ons, but who refused to leave the stage after their small parts had been enacted, and who later proved to have connections all through the story as well as crucial destinies in the completion of the tale. By the end of that book, I felt as though I had a grasp on not just what the story was about, but about what kind of story it really was: that it was about learning to be in the world, not just growing up in the ordinary sense, but learning how to become a thinking, feeling individual, a moral and ethical adult, and how to fight for what is important without letting the fight itself turn you into something else.”
Aside from the gorgeous worldbuilding, which draws plenty on various real world religions and cultures—the British Isles, Vikings, Christianity, Inuit, and the nomads of the Mongolian-Manchurian grasslands—Memory, Sorrow and Thorn succeeds wildly on the back of its changing and evolving characters. Throughout the trilogy, Simon, Miriamele, Binanik, and the rest of the cast—good, bad, or somewhere in-between—face tremendous challenges, altering their courses in life, their places in the world, or their understandings of human nature. People change—truly and utterly—from the first page to the last. This makes rereads even more satisfying, as you marvel at Simon’s early oafishness, Prince Josua’s brooding, or Tiamak’s tentativeness. In many ways, they are totally different. War, and life, happens.