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!

Reading Tad Williams: “To Green Angel Tower: Part 2” (Book 3 of “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn”)

Well, I finally finished the concluding volume of Tad Williams’ magisterial trilogy “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.” In this final volume, the conflicts that have so far raged come to their stunning conclusion, as the various characters all make their way to the Hayholt in time to witness the fruition of the Storm King’s desire to turn back time and return to the world of the living. Ultimately, of course, the plans are foiled, but much is sacrificed in the process.

This novel is, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest works of epic fantasy. It’s not just that it engages with giant philosophical questions (though it does that), but that it also manages to dig down deep into the psychologies of its various characters. It allows you to understand what motivates them, even if you may find them a bit maddening at times. These are men and women that you have grown to love, and you feel their pain, both emotional and physical. You also feel your heart break when you witness their sacrifices, both major and minor.

It is thus tremendously resonant to see Simon and Miriamele at last consummate their love and take up their roles as the King and Queen of Osten Ard. Of course, Simon’s ascension is only possible because it is revealed that he is descended from the Fisher King, the founder of the League of the Scroll and the actual slayer of the dread dragon Shurakai (not, as had been long held, the High King Prester John). While their political fortunes are satisfying, it is the long-awaited romantic fulfillment that is the most powerful and evocative part of this novel. To Green Angel Tower shows us the rich emotional lives of these characters, allowing us to feel not just for them, but with them.

This is true for many of the “villains” of the story as well, particularly the misguided High King Elias, driven by a desire to resurrect his dead wife. Even Ineluki, the Storm King, is a figure that ultimately emerges as one of pity rather than absolute hatred. He was, after all, a young prince attempting to save his people and his home, and it was the actions of humanity that led him to call down the curse that destroyed his home and sent his spirit howling into the wilderness. This doesn’t mean that he isn’t still a danger that will destroy the fabric of the world itself, but it does render his actions at least understandable.

There are some characters, however, whose deaths are extraordinarily satisfying, chief among them the dark wizard Pyrates, whose actions have triggered this entire sequence of horrific events. It is truly poetic to see him brought down by the very forces that he has sought to unleash, burned to death by the Storm King after he attempts to control his erstwhile ally through magics that he can barely understand or control. His death is a reminder that sometimes cruelty and evil do indeed receive their just desserts.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the other two minor characters whose arcs are truly satisfying. The first is the reprobate monk Cadrach, whose sacrifice ensures that Simon and company can escape to safety, his final brave act a redemption for his misdeeds in the earlier novels. Still, there is much about his backstory that remains a mystery, and perhaps it’s better that way. As with any great epic, there are things that you are just not fated to know. Likewise, how can you not love Rachel the Dragon, the Mistress of Chambermaids who finally emerges from her hiding place in the Hayholt to find herself rewarded for her loyalty and steadfastness. I won’t lie, I got a tear in my eye when she was at last reunited with Simon, whom she has long presumed to be dead.

Naturally, considering this is an epic, the larger questions are not ignored. Indeed, the novel has a great deal to say about history, about how the actions of a few can impact the forces of many, as well as how those individuals often feel powerless to fight back against the forces that sweep them along. Just as importantly, however, To Green Angel Tower shows just how destructive the great events of history can be, leaving behind the bodies of the dead and the injured. For most of the characters, there are wounds that simply cut too deeply to ever be healed.

For Simon, those wounds are physical and emotional, as he has plunged into the darkest realms of pain and emotional damage.  As sorry as one might feel for Simon, however, it is Miriamele who is in many ways the true hero of this book. It is her dreadful decision to end her father’s suffering that breaks your heart and while she does get a happy ending, it’s hard to shake the feeling that her decision will haunt her for the rest of her life.

There are very few novels out there that can truly make me cry, but this is one of them. At times, I found myself profoundly saddened by the terrible events that have swept so many of these characters into the darkest of suffering, but I was also swept up in the heights of triumph. But do you want to know what made me cry the most? The friendship between Binabik and Simon. Truly, this is one of the most beautiful friendships in fiction, bar none.

Like the best fantasy novels, Williams manages to paint a world that feels like a real place, one riven by the same conflicted loyalties that always characterize our lived experiences. The world is full of conflicted loyalties and deep histories, and there are not always endings that end happily for everyone. The conflict between humans and Sithi is one that may never actually be healed, despite the fact that the latter helped the former defeat one of their own. And that, ultimately, is one of the most bittersweet things about the novel and thus one of its most noteworthy features.

Now, I’m making my way through the slender volume The Heart of What Was Lost. Keep your eyes here for my forthcoming review. I’m almost finished with it at the moment, and let me tell you, this is an amazing book. I can’t wait for The Witchwood Crown!

Reading Tad Williams: “To Green Angel Tower: Part 1” (Book 3 of “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn”)

I must apologize for taking so long to finish up this post. I have been on the road quite a lot that past couple of weeks, and have just now (finally!) finished the first half of To Green Angel Tower  (yes, I still have the mass market paperback, which split the final volume into two halves). Having done so, I can now offer a few remarks on what constitutes one of the greatest works of fantasy of the latter half of the 20th Century.

First, a brief word about the artwork for the cover. From the moment I bought these books at Waldenbooks all those years ago, I have loved the cover. There is just something piercing and perfect about Michael Whelan’s renditions of Miriamele and Simon, paired with Jiriki and Aditu. It is very rare that I find a cover that captures my own mental image of a character, but this one seems to capture the world-weary mortals and the continuing intensity of the Sithi. I would even go so far as to say that this is my favourite cover of a fantasy novel, showcasing the best of Whelan’s always-extraordinary talents.

I won’t spend too much time reciting plot summary, other than to note that the novel starts bringing all of the characters together. While the Sithi finally ride forth and return the control of Hernystir to its people, Simon, Binabik, and the others overcome significant obstacles to cement Josua’s position of strength, while Miriamele, Isrgimnur, and Camaris finally make their way to the Stone of Farewell.

This novel, perhaps more than the ones that preceded it, shows us in full measure the powerful sweep of historical events that often pick humans up in their midst and hurl them against the rocks of fate and chance. All of the characters, both major and minor, bear the scars of their travails, and it’s hard not to feel at least a stab of pity even for Elias, whose own folly and poor judgment have led his father’s kingdom and all of his accomplishments to the edge of ruin (and perhaps beyond). They are all of them, even the Storm King and his ally Utuk’u, bound by historical forces that they cannot quite control or name. The true tragedy, to my mind, is that so many of them can’t even recognize the limits of their own agency. History is a prison from which none can ultimately escape.

For all of its attention to the grand sweep of history, however, it is at the level of the personal that the book truly succeeds. Williams has a deft and deep understanding of what makes people work. Both Simon and Miriamele have been through some of the hardest and most trying encounters a human being can endure, and while they clearly have feelings for one another, they do not yet know how to express them in a way that is mutually satisfying. Each of them remains locked in an emotional prisoning not entirely of their own making, afraid to really render themselves vulnerable to one another and thus express their love.

Other, more minor characters also have their own tragedies. The princess Maegwin has become trapped in her own mind, wandering the lonely roads of madness, while Count Eolair, the man who loves her and whom she loves in return, can only look on and hope for the best. Like Simon and Miramele, the seemingly grand history in which they are caught up has begun to take a tremendous toll on both their physical and emotional well-being, and in staging this drama Williams manages to show us the costs of history, the way in which it affects the lives of those who, so we might think, are those who are in the middle of the story.

However, while the younger heroes are of course the center of the narrative, it is also worth pointing out that Cadrach, at least as he is revealed through the eyes of the princess, is also a tortured and mutilated soul. He struggles against the darker and baser parts of his nature, and yet he always manages to come up short. It is hard to know precisely what to make of him, considering that the only access that we as readers get of him is what Miriamele thinks and believes, but even that is enough to tell us that he cannot escape his deeds in the past. While the full extent of his complicity remains something of a mystery, enough has been revealed to show us that, in some way, whether large or small, he has been pivotal to all of the events that have unfolded.

Though the entirety of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is, of course, an epic, it is also, I would argue, an embodiment of the highest aspirations of the tragic mode. The great schism between the Sithi and the Norns is one of the great and terrible events of the series, and while it lies back in the mists of time for humanity, it is one of those signature events that still dominates the fortunes of those living in later days. Indeed, had the two families not been sundered, it’s possible that the events that are even now taking place might have been prevented, and a great deal of bloodshed and brutality avoided. And yet that is precisely what makes the events of the novel so heartbreaking. So much pain might have never have happened, so many lives could have been saved if only certain events had not transpired. And yet, like all tragedies, the events keep us moving ahead, helpless to stop what is about to happen.

I’m currently hard at work reading the second part of To Green Angel Tower, so I’m hoping to have my thoughts on that ready for public consumption by the end of April. I have to say that I’m really enjoying both re-reading these novels that played such a large part of my youth, as well as sharing my thoughts about them with those of you out there in the dark. As always, I invite you to comment and reflect on your own reading encounters with “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.”

Reading Tad Williams: “Stone of Farewell” (Book 2 of “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn)

Today, I continue with my reviewing of the corpus of the fantasy author Tad Williams, and today’s entry focuses on the second volume of his series “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn,” Stone of Farewell.

The book begins where its predecessor left off. Simon and company are held by Binabik’s fellow trolls, with Binabik himself and the Rimmersman Sludig under a sentence of death. While they are eventually released, their trials and tribulations have just begun. Gradually, the pieces begin to move in their necessary directions. Josua and his band of survivors make their way to an old Sithi place named the Stone of Farewell, where they are joined by Binabik and Sludig. Simon, having been separated from his companions, finally makes his way to the Sithi stronghold of Jao e-Tinukai’i, where he is reunited with his old friend Jiriki and encounters the ancient Amerasu. Unfortunately, the Norn queen Utuk’u sends the hunter Ingen Jegger to kill her, and he succeeds (though he dies in doing so). Simon is permitted to leave and rejoins his friends at the Stone of Farewell. Meanwhile, Tiamak struggles with his own quest, Miriamele falls prey to the predatory Count Aspitis, and Maegwin tries to lead her people in exile.

By the end of the novel, the pieces are in place for the final throws of the game, in which the outnumbered Josua, the League of the Scroll, and their scattered allies must begin their attempt to beat back the vengeful plot of the Storm King (the full extent of which is still unclear). The novel is, unsurprisingly, full of Williams’ lush and often heartbreaking prose–there were several points where I actually shed a tear–and the characters manage to persevere through some of the worst trials imaginable. Indeed, their wanderings bear more than a striking resemblance to those of other heroic figures in epic literature, ranging from Odysseus to Aeneas. Their wanderings and setbacks allow us to get a stronger sense of the stakes of their struggle, and the growing conflict between Miriamele and Aspitis in particular reveals the subject position that many women occupy in this world. However, she also reveals her strength and her ability to persevere through trials that would break a weaker person.

As compelling as Miramele is, however, she is not, in my opinion, the strongest and most powerful of the novel’s female characters. This honour belongs to Amerasu, the eldest Sithi still living. While she is only ever glimpsed through Simon’s eyes, Amerasu emerges as one of the novel’s most tragic characters. Hers is a terrible burden, for she must choose between bringing about the utter destruction of the being who was once her son and the choice to preserve the world that he will stop at nothing to destroy. This is itself part of the larger tragedy faced by the Sithi as they attempt to determine whether they should partake in the coming conflict or hunker down and hope that the storm passes them by. After all, in many ways they have more in common with their cousins the Norns–who are, after all, leading the charge in the destruction of humankind–than they do with the mortals who have been responsible

One of the most distressing and heartbreaking scenes comes during the council that the Sithi hold, in which Amerasu states that she will reveal to those gathered the designs that she believes that the Storm King has in mind in his efforts. When she is ruthlessly slain by Jegger, it is hard not to feel that something has been irrevocably lost as a result of the vengeful spirit that has begun to sake shape in the North. It is rendered all the more tragic in that she is stopped before she can give the gathered Sithi the vital information that they can use in their battle against one who once belonged to them. Knowledge has once again been denied the very people who could use it most.

Similarly, it is hard not to feel the potent tragedy of Elias. While we have yet to learn what he was promised by Pyrates that led him to this dreadful pass, there is nevertheless something almost despicable about it. We get the feeling that Elias would not have done the things he did without the malignant influence of the red priest. Further, through the eyes of his Hand Guthwulf, we are led to believe that Elias has even begun to tip over the edge into outright madness. We also get the sense that, for all of his personality flaws, Elias might have been a decent king had he not let himself be led astray. He would not, perhaps, have been as wise or as great as his father (and neither would Josua, who is as moody and tormented as any Romantic hero), but he would at least have been able to hold the kingdom together and would not have sacrificed the well-being of his people.

Like many middle volumes, Stone of Farewell shows that the tides of evil are cresting while those of good have seemingly been pushed to the very cusp of defeat. We are consistently led to feel a sense of powerlessness each of our heroes struggles to overcome events and powers that are so much greater than they are. These are, after all, conflicts that are centuries in the making, and the power of the Storm King in particular is such that it seems that nothing short of a miracle can bring hm low. Yet that is precisely the pleasure of the epic genre, is it not? The sense that the powers of evil–and whether they can be so easily defined–is one that Williams is adept at articulating. However, we also know that, eventually, the forces that we have come to identify with shall eventually triumph, though the cost they pay may be very high indeed.

I’m currently making my way through the first half of the next and last novel, To Green Angel Tower. Stay tuned to this space to my review!