When I heard the news that Tad Williams, one of my very favourite fantasy authors, was returning at last to Osten Ard, the sprawling setting of his epic fantasy series “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn,” I was overcome with happiness. While I haven’t yet read the short novel The Heart of What Was Lost, I have begun to re-read MST in anticipation of doing so (a full-length novel, The Witchwood Crown, is apparently due out this summer).
As I do every so often, I would like to suggest that Tad Williams belongs to that elite cadre of fantasy authors who truly deserves the title of “Tolkien’s Heir.” In terms of the richness of his world-building, the complexity of his characters, and the emotional depth of his achievement, Williams has truly ascended into the ranks of the great fantasy authors of the late 20th Century.
Now, I know that a comparison to Tolkien’s work is thrown about in review circles anytime a new epic fantasy series sees the light of day. It’s become so extensively used that it’s little more than a meaningless cliché. However, Williams’ work really does deserve comparison to the grand master of the form, the man whose own The Lord of the Rings is truly a masterpiece and one that succeeds as a piece of literature not in spite of but because of its form and content as fantasy.
In my estimation, the same can be said of all of Williams’ work, both the epics (MST and Shadowmarch), as well as the other fantasy works that he has published over his career. Williams constantly shows that there is a certain explanatory and experiential power in the fantasy genre that renders it a uniquely effective way of addressing some of the questions that continue to press us as human beings in a complicated and contradictory world.
Of course, Williams is one of the finest world-builders working in the genre today, and his invented nations seem to leap off of the page into breathing life right in front of us. Whether it is Osten Ard or the many warring nations that comprise the world of Shadowmarch, one can see that the worlds of his imagination of a phenomenal amount of internal consistency. Further, there are histories in these worlds, wells that run deep and troubled and contentious pasts that shape and determine what happens during the novels themselves. The titanic struggles the characters face are often not of their own making, but that does not mean that they don’t still bear a significant amount of responsibility for what occurs.
This, in turn, allows Williams to engage with the thornier questions of morality, justice, and who really gets to claim the high ground in the sort of larger-than-life disputes that are the lifeblood of epic fantasy. For all of Tolkien’s strengths, he was a product of his troubled times, and for him the question of race is, to put it mildly, a vexed one. His portrayal of people of colour is, with a few exceptions, quite negative (though not as repugnantly racist as his colleague C.S. Lewis), but Williams takes care in many of his works to depict people of colour who do not fit comfortably into established stereotypes. This is certainly true of Shadowmarch and sequels, which feature a number of characters that come from cultures that are not typically “white” or European.
Finally, and largely as a result of all of this, reading a Williams novel (or series) is an intense and sometimes overwhelming emotional experience. Beloved characters do die, and sometimes even the deaths of villains are more heart-wrenching than you might have expected. Death is very much a part of Williams’ novels, and you should never become too attached to some of your favourite characters. However, I would also like to point out that while you may feel emotionally wrung-out at
As I embark on my re-reading of Williams’ oeuvre (I hope to have read all of his works by the time the new novel is out this summer), I am astounded again at the richness and power of his prose. Truly, this is an author upon him I hope to model my own writing of fantasy. If I can accomplish but half of what he has, I shall consider myself fortunate indeed.