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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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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!

Reading Tad Willams: “The Dragonbone Chair” (Book One of “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn)

A recent piece in The Guardian made the trenchant point that Tad Williams, author of the fantasy epic series “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn,” hasn’t really gotten the respect he deserves for both the achievement of his epic series in itself as well as the influence he has come to exert on generations of fantasy writers. In keeping with the spirit of that Guardian article, I have embarked on an epic quest of my own, to make my way through his corpus. Given that he has published three complete series (“Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn,” “Otherland,” and “Bobby Dollar,”) along with sundry other works, this may take me a while.

Nevertheless, I plan to keep at it, and to post my reviews of his work here, starting with The Dragonbone Chair.

Now, a brief word about my history with Williams and his work. I first discovered him when I was a teenager and, as I was prone to doing at the time, I just browsed through the aisles of the fantasy section at Waldenbooks (back when that was a thing) and, I believe at my Dad’s suggestion, picked up To Green Angel Tower:  Part 1. Again, being the foolish person that I was back then, I went ahead, read it, and and bought the second part, and it would be several years before I would get around to reading the series from beginning to end.

Now, I’m on my second time around, and I find that I love it even more. There is a lushness and a maturity to Williams’ prose that I find is very rare indeed in a lot of even the highest-quality fantasy writing. Every time I read his work, I take pleasure not just in the plot (though those are surprisingly tightly-woven for works of epic scope), but also in the way that he engages us as readers, giving us a world at once brilliantly realized and familiar yet also sometimes disconcertingly strange.

The novel follows several primary characters, primary among them Simon, a young scullion who is apprenticed to a scholar named Morgenes. Gradually, he becomes embroiled in both struggles both political and cosmic, as it gradually emerges that the dynastic struggle between two princes, Elias and Josua, is but part of a much larger struggle between the undead Sitha Ineluki (the elf-like creatures of this world) the Storm King and the humans who he sees as his enemy to be utterly destroyed.

I have found that the most compelling and enjoyable epic fantasies typically contain something of the disturbing about them, something that makes an essential human part of your body and psyche recoil. Terry Brooks has it with his Reaper and his Shadowen, Tolkien had it with the Nazgûl, and Robert Jordan had it with the Myrddraal. Williams has an uncanny ability to convey, primarily through Simon’s eyes, the absolute otherness of Ineluki and the Norns who are his primary allies. The scene in which Elias gains possession of the unearthly and destructive sword Sorrow, in particular, is one of the most viscerally unsettling that I have ever read in a fantasy novel, equaled only (I think) by the revelation in Martin’s A Storm of Swords of Catelyn Stark’s eventual fate.

While Simon fits neatly into the fantasy archetype of the reluctant hero, he’s actually far more complex and contradictory than that designation might imply. He is by turns likable and insufferable, and he is driven by a burning desire to know. His descent into abjection after he is forced to flee the castle known as the Hayholt is frightening, and Williams’ great genius is that he allows us as readers to feel Simon’s sense of fear and alienation, as he struggles throughout the novel to make sense of of the forces that continue to move him along and, as importantly, attempt to assert his own agency in the face of those titanic forces.

There is much else to love about this novel. The world is vast yet understandable, with a rich history that suffuses every aspect of the novel. Ancient history comes bubbling to the surface in all of its terror and its suffering, and it is up to the flawed mortals of these latter days to attempt to piece together the tatters of knowledge that have been left in order to make sense of the threat and attempt to combat it. As readers, the novel forces us to dwell in as much ignorance as the characters and to feel with them the terror of the unknowable, even as we hope (perhaps without justification) that a new day may yet dawn. Even in the face of incredible suffering–the death of companions, the destruction of the strongholds of good–hope springs eternal. In The Dragonbone Chair, and indeed in Williams’ epic fantasy work more generally, the beautiful and the tragic remain inseparably intertwined.

I’m sure that most of this sounds like slavish devotion, but let me assure you that it is heartfelt and genuine. Fantasy as a genre is rarely celebrated for either its aesthetic beauty or its philosophical depth, and that is truly a shame, because Williams does both. Is it possible to have human agency in a world where titanic forces threaten to overwhelm those who would resist it? Is there such a thing as good and evil to begin with? How much can we truly know, either about the world in which we live or about the history that precedes us? Who, for that matter, gets to write history and how are we to make sense of the tangled skein of competing narratives that constantly struggle for supremacy? Of course, there are no easy answers to these, and the novel doesn’t try to provide them.

Just as importantly, though, Williams’ work continues to serve as one of my models. He, along with others such as Terry Brooks, is a potent and important reminder that epic fantasy can be vast and scope and still wrap itself up in either a trilogy or, at most, a tetralogy. He continues to inspire me with his work.

It will be a while before I finish Stone of Farewell (dissertation and all), but when I do I’ll be commenting on it here. Stay tuned!

Tolkien’s Heirs: Tad Williams

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.