Reading Tad Williams: “The Witchwood Crown” (Book 1 of “The Last King of Osten Ard”)

Warning: Major Spoilers Follow

At long last, I have finished The Witchwood Crown and let me tell you, dear readers, this is one hell of a book.

The story takes place roughly thirty years after the end of To Green Angel Tower, and Simon and Miriamele have successfully ruled as the High King and High Queen of Osten Ard. However, not all is as peaceful for it seems, for there is unrest throughout the human kingdoms, and the Norns have also begun to re-emerge from a long period of dormancy. Beset with problems both domestic and political, and joined by numerous new characters, Simon and Miriamele must contend with yet another grave peril to their beloved kingdom.

There is something uniquely pleasurable about seeing the characters that we loved so much in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. All of them, of course, bear the burden of the intervening years, Miriamele and Simon most of all. They have governed well, but already there are disturbing signs that all is not as well as it might appear. Fortunately, there are still those that are able to aid them, such as the doughty but aging Count Eolair, as well as the lovable and eternally loyal troll Binabik. There is something equally sad about learning that some of our favourite characters–Rachel the Dragon, Father Strangeyeard, etc.–have already died. And if you don’t feel a tear come to your eye at the death of dear old Duke Isgrimnur, then I don’t think that you are really a human being.

While Simon and Miriamele were the central characters in the preceding series, it seems that now they are on the fringes of the narrative. Their actions are important, certainly, but it’s hard not to feel that events have begun to slip beyond their grasp. Having faced the death of their only son, they now have to contend with the fact that his son has become something of a wastrel. Williams does an excellent job conveying their maturity, as well as the sinister fact that even their most seemingly loyal councilors–such as Pasavalles–may have motivations that are not in the best interests of the monarchs.

As with The Heart of What Was Lost, one of the things I enjoyed most about this novel was the portrait that we get of the inner workings of Norn society. This is a rigid culture that has very set ways of doing things, and while many of them believe that this is the way that it should be, there are significant nodes of resistance among even the highest of them. Viyeki, now a Magister, is one of these, and the parts of the book devoted to his viewpoint are always compelling, in no small part because he, perhaps more than any of his countrymen, realizes that the Queen and her chief adviser Akhenabi may not be as wise or as infallible as the Norns have come to believe.

Most of the new characters are likewise compelling, though Morgan, the grandson of the king and queen, is quite insufferable (for all that we sympathize with him in some ways). Nezeru, the daughter of Viyeki and the mortal Tzoja; Unver the Thrithing; and numerous others make appearances that show that this novel is comprised of a number of moving parts. Everyone has their own motivations, some noble and some not, and that is part of what makes The Witchwood Crown such an utterly consuming read.

At a deeper philosophical level (which is always one of my favourite things about Williams’s work), the novel forces us to confront one of the uncomfortable realities that simmers beneath the surface of a great deal of epic fantasy. While the endings of so many epics suggest that the evil has been banished once and for all, that is almost never the case in the real world. The story goes on, the cycle of history repeats itself, and those who are caught in the gears of it have to fend for themselves or learn to navigate as best they can. While Williams’ books tend to not be as ruthless as those of, say, George R.R. Martin, I am beginning to wonder if we might not see the end of some of our most beloved characters (after all, the series is titled “The Last King of Osten Ard”).

At this point, it’s still rather difficult to see the endgame of the series as a whole. Clearly Utuk’ku will stop at nothing to reclaim the world that she thinks has been stolen from her and her people by the mortals. What’s more, most of the humans seem to be so caught up in their own pettiness that they fail to see the forest for the trees. Even after the carnage and destruction of the Storm King’s War, humanity seems chronically unable to hold itself together long enough to be able to actually build a more just, stable world. This series seems like a slower burn than Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, and in that sense it seems to have more in common (pace-wise) with the Shadowmarch series. For someone like me who likes a plot that only gradually unfolds–with, of course, a tremendously satisfying conclusion–this is right up my alley. And, in my humble opinion, it is one of Williams’s greatest strengths.

Overall, this new adventure in Osten Ard seems a bit darker than its predecessors, a product, perhaps, of the very different sociocultural milieu in which Williams is now writing. There are even more grey areas than there were before, and even some of the characters whose minds we inhabit are far murkier than we might have thought possible. There are great forces at work, and it is entirely possible that the things that everyone has taken for granted in this world, perhaps even the very substance of the world itself, may come crashing down into ruin. I have already begun bracing myself for what’s coming next.

The only problem is…how long will I have to wait for the next volume?

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