Like the first volume of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, The Witchwood Crown is layered and rich, but also measured in its pacing. Unlike The Dragonbone Chair, which introduces point-of-view characters over a large period of time, the new book hits the ground running, both in terms of establishing the plot conflict and introducing point-of-view characters. While this provides a widescreen view of the various going-ons in Osten Ard—and some opportunity for speculation, as we try to connect the dots between the disparate plot threads—it also means that you’re going through the opening motions with several characters at the same time.
Instead of featuring one perspective that grows more complex, readers are introduced (or reintroduced) to the characters as their conflicts are established, and things begin to slowly unfurl from there. A third of the way through, it still feels like you’re in the introductory phase, despite a plot that is undeniably more complex than the opening of The Dragonbone Chair. As a fan who’s deeply invested in the series, I enjoyed this opportunity to revisit old friends and watch with a slow sense of dread as the world begins to show signs of coming war, but new readers might find themselves at a loss. As with The Dragonbone Chair however, perseverance and patience is well-rewarded.
That said, while The Witchwood Crown is deeply vested in the previous trilogy, Williams has worked hard to make it approachable for newcomers to Osten Ard. He only revisits events from the previous trilogy when they are relevant to the plot, which saves the opening chapters from being filled with recaps, while also ensuring new readers have the information and context necessary to understand the social and political history of the first trilogy. In this way, it recalls Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, which uses its multi-generational structure to ease readers into the Four Lands no matter where they start the journey. Like the jump from Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara to The Elfstones of Shannara, The Witchwood Crown features the children and grandchildren of many of the original trilogy’s most popular characters. These second and third generation characters do well to remind readers of their ancestors, but also carve their own path through Osten Ard, zigging where their parents might have zagged.
Young Prince Morgan, grandson of King Simon and Queen Miriamele, and heir to the High Ward, provides an interesting examples of how Williams compares and contrasts the conflicts and personalities facing two generations. Unlike his grandfather, who was a kitchen scullion long before he became High King of Osten Ard, Morgan grew up in the lap of luxury, privileged in every possible way. No surprise, he has a certain disdain for his responsibilities, and is often found loitering with his drunken friends rather than taking an interest in his kingdom and its people. Simon was fascinated by the world around him, by all its secrets and stories, so much so that it often took his mind away from his daily tasks, earning him the nickname “mooncalf.” Morgan, on the other hand, is full of insecurities. He would rather loaf about than challenge himself—all for fear of being judged. It’s not so much that he doesn’t care, but that’s he’s afraid.
“Don’t me rude, Morgan, and do not try to be humorous. It’s really not a good idea at this moment.” She put her hand on the side of his bed to steady herself as she stood. Sometimes the prince forgot that his grandmother was an old woman, more than fifty years old, because she was quick to smile and almost girlish in her laughter. He knew he should feel back for making her worry, but for some reason seeing how she labored to stand after a long time sitting made him feel even worse. Even stranger, it made him as angry as if she thumped him in the jaw himself. Sometimes it seemed like people only cared about him so they would have an excuse to be unhappy with him. (Ch. 33)
Memory, Sorrow and Thorn “was about learning to be in the world,” Williams reflected in his introduction to the 2004 edition of The Dragonbone Chair, “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.” In that way, the new trilogy is about both growing up, and about growing old. A different kind of mooncalf than his grandfather, Morgan sees lessons as punishments, which, in many ways, brings back memories of young Simon.