Fantasy / Sci-Fi Book Review
Tad Williams wrote one of the best fantasy series ever written with his Memory, Sorrow and Thorn books. It captured the mooncalf Simon, a scullery boy who became high king through a riveting series of adventures. I feel like the grandfather in The Princess Bride when talking about it, there were princesses, sword fights, battles and Norns. It hit me at an impressionable age and I still remember the feelings it invoked as it sucked me into the world.
This is the follow up series, some forty years later, The Last King of Osten Ard, which begins with the Witchwood Crown. In this first installment, Simon has become an old man. He’s still the High King of the land but he’s a grandfather struck by the tragedy of the loss of a son and the raising of an errant grandson, Morgan. A lot of the old cast of characters is back, aged and greyed with experience and heartbreak. Being reintroduced to these characters felt like a homecoming that highlighted my own grey hairs and creaky knees. It was wonderful to reexperience the marshy constructed language of Tiamak and the yoda-like Binabik again, even as old men. Especially as old men. These two have always wielded outsider’s wisdom without sounding preachy or condescending, something rare in the fantasy genre of late. That wisdom has aged nicely into something timeless.
The kingdom is once again under threat, though that threat doesn’t have any sense of urgency behind it. In fact, that is the theme of the book. Coming in at roughly 750 pages, ninety percent of those pages is dedicated to world building, scene setting and foreshadowing. Which means very little of it is spent on anything actually happening. Picture the Fellowship of the Rings where ninety percent of the book is the long and expected party at the very beginning.
The threat appears to be from the Norn Queen, the immortal enemy that our cast of characters went head to head with in the first series. She’s waking up and gathering an army. I think. Not enough actually happens to truly know what the threat is.
Williams has a gift of bringing characters to life. He goes into extraordinary detail via the actions of the characters. His characters are amazing. That said, one of the big issues I have with the Witchwood Crown is that I don’t know who the protaganist is. Is it still Simon? Is it his grandson Morgan? Could it be the half Norn, half human, Nezeru? Is it Unver the clansman? I struggled with this. Williams introduced so many characters in this first offering that I don’t even know who I should be rooting for. I don’t really even know who the bad guys are yet.
All of this set up, with so many characters, makes the pacing of the novel glacial. I don’t know if that is because of the author or because of how our tastes and consumption of media has shifted. I’m sure it’s a bit of both. When I was younger, in the days before the iPhone, I could sit down with a book and read for three or four hours straight, chewing through hundreds of pages. Nowadays, after five minutes my phone starts whispering to me with it’s buzzes and dings about things it pretends to be urgent which have no relevance to my life. These insidious devices have conditioned us to have the attention span of golden retrievers.
This is how we end up in the age of Marvel and bloated Star Wars offerings. The canon has already been established, so now they just throw CGI action scene after CGI action scene with very little story at us. And we eat it up. Creativity dies as profits rise. User created content is not much different. If it doesn’t shock you or crack you up in the allotted 30 second TikTok period, you’ve become an unfluencer.
I’ll hop off my high horse and say I’m glad Williams is going for this level of depth. It gives us a chance to get invested in these characters. To really care if something happens to one of them. That’s worthwhile. As a species, we need to rediscover our love of the written word. We express ourselves differently when we have time to think, time to make the words sing.
Williams knows how to do that.
That said, I’ll take another U-turn and say, I really wish he threw in a bit more action because this book flirts with Dickensian style prose which felt bloated even in the pre-television days.
I’m going to start the next book in the series soon. You get the sense the storm is building and I want to see what happens when it strikes.