This review was originally published by Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog in June, 2017. Sadly the publication closed down, so I'm preserving my favourite pieces, and bringing them to a new audience through these reprints.
“By the Ransomer’s Tree, when did we all grow so old.”
Epic fantasy fans are used to waiting for years to return to their favorite worlds—the wait for the sixth volume in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has practically become an Internet meme. When Tad Williams left Osten Ard in 1993 with the conclusion of his influential Memory Sorrow and Thorn trilogy, To Green Angel Tower, he gave us no clear indication he would return, beyond some dangling plot threads. Still, fans spent the next 24 years begging him to return to the setting and series that inspired Martin to write A Game of Thrones in the first place.
For a long time, it looked like Williams was done with Osten Ard, and happy to let fans speculate about the reign of the new king and queen, the fate of twins Derra and Deornoth, and their involvement in a mysterious prophecy. “At the time,” he said in a recent AMA on r/books, “I just meant to suggest that magical things were going to keep happening in Osten Ard.” Besides a single novella, “The Burning Man,” (available in Legends), Williams stayed true to this idea, producing instead expansive sagas like Otherland and Shadowmarch.
Until January 2017, when readers got their wish: Williams released The Heart of What Was Lost, a brief sequel to Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, meant to act as a bridge between the original trilogy and a brand new trilogy, The Last King of Osten Ard. Considering the the lasting legacy of Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, and the long wait for its fans, it’s easy to call the release of The Witchwood Crown the epic fantasy event of the year. It’s also difficult to think of a better novel released so far in 2017.
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.
Williams revels in returning to themes, ideas, and problems that he first explored in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, and looking for new solutions—discovering how people born under different circumstances might deal with the same conflict. Like his grandfather, Morgan will be forced to grow up, and put aside his childish naivety, which doesn’t feel all that different from Simon’s reluctant aging. “By the Ransomer’s Tree,” Simon grumbles in the privacy of this thoughts, “when did we all grow so old.” Themes of growing up and growing old are woven into such an intricate tapestry, that one wonders if a return to Osten Ard is part of Williams’ own efforts to reconcile who he was when he wrote the first trilogy with who he is today. Do we really lose who we were when we were younger? Or do we simply become more…complicated?
Williams’ prose, characterization, and worldbuilding are top-notch, as always, and the return to Osten Ard is so seamless, it is difficult to believe that 30 years have passed since the story began. Like Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, The Last King of Osten Ard is shaping up to be an exploration of what happens to people—on a personal, societal, and political level—in the aftermath of war. Williams injects The Witchwood Crown with the same aged and thoughtful writing that gave the original trilogy its trademark air of melancholy, creating a lovely sense of reverberation for those of us who’ve grown up—and grown old—in this world.
(Quest Markers is a collection of the coolest stuff I’ve read around the web lately.)
- "Darkness Over Hayholt" (Michael Whelan)
- Tad Williams breaks own record to deliver the longest epic fantasy novel of all time (before editing) (The Wertzone)
- Tad Williams talks about world-building (Fantasy Literature)
- Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is the Natural Successor to Game of Thrones (Tor.com)
- Tropes, trolls and Trump: the fantasy writer who inspired George RR Martin (The Guardian)
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