Reading Tad Williams: “The Heart of What Was Lost”

I’ve been waiting so long to finally get around to reading Tad Williams’ new novel The Heart of What Was Lost. Having immersed myself in the textured world of his trilogy “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn” for the last several months, I had very high hopes indeed for this return to that world.

I was not disappointed.

I do not say this lightly: Tad Williams is one of the most talented fantasy writers out there. It’s not just that his prose is exquisite to read (though it is that), but also that he manages to craft characters who are utterly compelling and who you are led to sympathize with, despite the fact that some of them are not even human. The novel is, above all, about the relationships between and among people and among groups, about how we can make sense of ourselves as communal beings. In that sense, it is a very relevant book for our current social and political moment.

To briefly summarize: the novel takes place in the immediate aftermath of the battle that occurred at the end of To Green Angel Tower. Isgrimnur, the venerable Duke, has been tasked with pursuing the Norns and ensuring that they do not cause any more damage or harm than they already have. In his army are two soldiers, Endri and Porto, who strike up an unusual friendship, while among the Norns the Builder Viyeki strives to do everything he can to help his people make their slow and painful way back to their mountain home.

There is genuine and heart-wrenching pathos in the relationship between Porto and Endri, the two common soldiers whose relationship makes up one significant strand of the novel’s plot. Perhaps it’s just the fact that I’m a queer man, but there was something emotionally resonant about this relationship that went beyond mere friendship, but that’s probably not surprising. The haunting ending, in which it is revealed that a Norn spell was able to resurrect the dead body of Endri is not just horrifying; it’s heartbreaking. It’s bad enough that Porto wasn’t able to save his friend, but to have that youth emerge from the grave and then have to be reburied is almost too much to bear.

Just as compelling, however, are the portions dedicated to Viyeki, the Norn Builder who finds himself caught at the intersection of powerful forces. While the immortals have been defeated and their plans to turn back time have been thwarted, they are far from finished. While the Queen of the Norns rests in suspended slumber, those who hold power in her stead war amongst themselves, each convinced that they know how to best preserve their way of life. As the novel progresses, we get a real sense of the conflicted loyalties that Viyeki feels, as well as the pivotal position that he occupies in the future of his people.

Indeed, one of the things I really loved about this novel was the way in which it shed light on the society and culture of the Norns. While they hovered on the edges of the earlier trilogy, here we get a much more in-depth view of them. They are a society riven by all sorts of conflicts among the powerful nobles, while the caste system enforces a rigid and repressive organization on the entirety of society. However, as the events of this novella make clear, that is all about to change, and it is even possible (indeed even likely) that the Norns may begin intermarrying with their mortal servants. Who knows where that is going to lead?

Of course, no review of this book would be complete without mentioning Isgrimnur, the bluff but affable Duke who played such a pivotal role in the original trilogy. Here he is in all his glory but, I hasten to add, he’s a bit more angry and dangerous than readers may remember. But then, it’s hard to blame him for that, considering how much has been lost to the Norns as a result of the war and their further depredations as they make their way back to their homeland. As the story progresses, he gradually grows more ruthless, until he is determined to basically wipe out the Norns. It is quite striking to see this character, whom we love and remember so fondly, become thoroughly disenchanted with the war that he has been charged with seeing through to its completion. Though he makes it out alive (of course), we know that he will probably never be the same.

The Heart of What Was Lost continues a theme that was subtly hinted at in its predecessors: war, even when it is won, leaves a terrible scar on those who have participated in it. While victory is sweet, there is no question that it also involves tremendous sacrifice. Even when, at the end of the novel, the Norns are saved, there can be no doubt that their former ways of doing things has been irrevocably altered, both by the war itself and by the actions that were taken in the attempt to save themselves from utter obliteration at the hands of their human enemies. I am sure that we will see the consequences of this brought to fruition in the forthcoming trilogy. After all, Williams excels at showing us the consequences of history, and how the actions taken by those desperate to save themselves, no matter how justified they may be, can have far-ranging and sometimes devastating consequences for the future.

I don’t know about all of you, but I am beyond excited about the release of The Witchwood Crown. I’ve already bought it, so I’m just waiting for it to come out, and then I’ll be diving in at the deep end. It’s slated to arrive here on Tuesday, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to wait that long! Stay tuned for my review (as well as those of Mr. Williams’s other works, which will be forthcoming over the next several months). Once I finish The Witchwood Crown, it’s on to The War of the Flowers, then hopefully Shadowmarch. 

Stay tuned!

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