on 7 May 2013
not really. I mean, Tad Williams' 3/4 volume saga is truly engaging, especially once you get to the final volume. Unfortunately, for the first two books, you really do spend a great portion of your time screaming blue murder at Simon, knowing that even in the end, he'll most likely still consider himself a bloody Mooncalf.
No, what really got me through all three (four?) volumes was realising early on that this book was released in 1991, and George R.R. Martin didn't get around to releasing A Game of Thrones until 1996. I realise that one should be flattered to be copied, but the level of plagiarism exhibited by Martin borders on the obscene. Red comet heralding impending doom? Check. Hand of the King? Check. White Walkers? Sorry, White Foxes? Check. A devastating winter descending from the North? Check. The list goes on...
Don't get me wrong. I love Ice and Fire. GM has delivered on the promise of what Memory, Sorrow & Thorn could've been. With swearing. And nudity. And a unique point-of-view literary device which keeps the reader guessing what'll come next. But Tad Williams deserves immeasurable credit for creating such a grand beginning, middle and end. For me, I just wanted loads more chapters focusing on every other character.
And it's worth it just for Simon and the Wheel...
on 21 August 2005
Though the paperback weighs in at 766 pages of text I wasn't bored or plodding through the story at all--rather I was racing towards the end, hoping that it would never come. Williams has crafted a fine tale set in a believable world. Follow the adventures of Simon (originally Seoman) the castle scullion. He lives in the Hayholt, capital castle for King John the Presbyter, High King of Osten Ard. Unfortunately King John is dying and his son Elias will inhereit the throne--however, not all is well with Elias and Pryrates, his mysterious counselor. Simon is thrust unwillingly into these tumultuous times and has to make the best of it.
Simon is definately the main character of the volume, yet as the story progresses you are introduced to a host of other characters and occasionally you'll see chapters and scenes from their perspective. Really everything weaves together in a tale that holds the imagination and attention while leaving you in anticipation of the next volume. I was also appreciative that the story stayed believable without falling into too many "fantasy cliches," and because of its length the development could go slowly (but not too slowly)--that is to say many things on the back cover weren't revealed for several hundred pages, :-). Don't expect to see characters who've never fought before suddenly wield a sword like an expert and become the kingdom's champion--Williams is more realistic than that, ;-).
The different cultures are well thoughtout, and the history of the world is anything but stagnant or "stuck in the Middle Ages." Rather there is a real sense of history and the rise and fall of nations. Don't expect to find a "typical fantasy" with humans, elves, and dwarves. Instead you'll find multiple believable human cultures, the mysterious Sithi, and diminutive Trolls.
Of worthy mention is the cover art and the maps. Michael Whelan produced the paperback cover art--and I have always enjoyed his work--true to the text as it is and wonderfully rendered. Additionally the maps were created by Tad Williams himself, and several enlargements appeared throughout the volume.
If you are looking for epic fantasy and a well crafted tale then look no further than <i>Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn</i>'s first volume <b>The Dragonbone Chair</b> to start you off.
on 13 August 2009
Not the most encouraging title for a review, perhaps, but the most apt I can think of. I'll explain shortly.
The plot has been well summarised by others here, so I won't waste your time repeating it, except to say that this is pretty much your standard tale of reluctant young hero taking on a dangerous mission for the good of the world. If that sounds formulaic, that's because it is, but fortunately this story is in the hands of Tad Williams, a writer who could write about tax law and come up with something enjoyable to read.
The length and pacing of the book have presented problems for some, here and on the American Amazon. Unlike the one-star "i red one page and got board" (sic) reviews given by some to bestselling thrillers, it's fair to assume that most people who take on a 700-page fantasy novel are serious readers and so their opinions are worth listening to. Length and slow pacing also figure in the comments by readers who clearly loved the book, so it is obviously an issue which should be drawn to the attention of the potential reader.
I found the book slow, maddeningly so, at times in the early stages. There were even times when I wondered whether to carry on. I am very glad that I did. As I read on, I found myself warming to the characters, the story, the fantasy world Williams creates and even the slow-paced style. The pace does speed up at the end, or perhaps it appeared to as I got more involved, and when I reached the end I felt as if I'd lived through a moving, epic and above all worthwhile experience. It was a bit like how I feel at the end of a performance of Wagner's Ring - those who appreciate that wonderful work will know what I mean.
If the foregoing is a bit pretentious, then I'll compound the sin with the following: I believe that in art, as in life, you get out what you put in. Listening to bland, three-minute pop songs, watching soaps and reality TV, or reading books with sex or violence on every other page (and six-word sentences) does provide instant gratification, though I can't see it in the case of reality TV. The problem is, such things are immediately forgotten and provide no long-lasting pleasure. Great works of music, cinema and literature require effort to be put in, and the rewards for doing so are as great or greater than the effort invested. This book is a good case in point. I'll illustrate this by saying that after finishing Dragonbone Chair I decided on a bit of lighter reading in the form of a Dean Koontz novel before moving on to Stone of Farewell. Now I like Koontz and his book was very enjoyable on its own merits, but after the Williams it seemed shallow and corny.
Four stars, not five, for two reasons - first, for the above mentioned longueurs, and second, for the constant repetition of various oaths based on the gods of Williams's fantasy world (Aedon be blessed, etc). It becomes annoying after a while.
Sorry if I've been a bit preachy - I hope this will be of help to potential readers.
on 18 June 2011
This is a mammoth trilogy, which strangely comes in four door-stopping volumes (at least the editions that I read), but don't let the sheer epic scale of this novel put you off.
I first read this series beginning back in my student days, returning to it on a number of occasions for a re-read, and each time it reveals some more its depth and subtlety. Rich in vivid detail, Tad Williams has presented a complex and sophisticated fantasy that inevitably brings comparisons to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, however, this is unfair to both titles.
Both must be considered as what they are: standalone works that weave in-depth and detailed characters into a complex, multi-layered story that nevertheless portrays the eternal theme of good against evil.
However, while there is a depth and complexity to Tolkien's work, it is much more in the heroic vein, dealing with more mythologised archetypes than does Williams' work. Here, he presents more of a landscape of Mediaeval realism, if it can be put in such terms, but his heroes and villains and the underlying mythical landscape is no less compelling for that.
In both worlds, evil is the product of fallen virtue - the arch-villains did not start evil but fell from grace, however, where Tolkien's Dark Lord resonates with Christian mythology of the Fallen Angel, Williams' Storm King is a demonic monster of subtler, more tragic origins, and it was the cruelty and brutality of Man that had a hand in his fall.
When the Rimmersmen, a Viking-like people arrive in the lands of Osten Ard, they bring with them iron - a deadly metal to the immortal Sithi - and an even deadlier lust for conquest and colonisation. They scourge the Kingdoms of men and strive to destroy the race of Sithi they deem to be demons. And so these invaders sow the seeds of cruelty and destruction that reaps a terrible harvest of evil in the centuries that follow.
When his people are driven to the brink, under siege in their ancient home of Asu'a, Prince of the Sithi Ineluki works a dark and terrible magic to repel the invaders and save his people. Though he cannot repel the invaders, he at least creates an avenue of escape for those of his kind to find a chance to flee into hiding, but in the process, Ineluki becomes the Storm King, a creature that lurks beyond death, sustained by hate, that now embarks on a far-reaching plan to return from death and exert a cruel revenge on humanity.
The story follows the fortunes of Simon, a kitchen boy, who finds himself caught in the heart of the calamitous times that engulf his little world. Whether he likes it or not, he's got destiny written all over him, and he's got to grow up fast.
Whether it's the panoramic landscapes, the intense and cruel battles, right down to the tiniest foibles and personal quibbles between the characters, Williams' writing is evocative and engaging. The characters instantly set up residence in our minds as living, breathing people caught up in events beyond their understanding, beyond their measure, but never once losing their existence as an individual.
Coming in four hefty volumes (book three is split into two), this is a marathon read, but it is well worth the effort. Indeed, the story and the vivid characters soon pull you in until you are carried along, a ghostly observer in their world, as they face the greatest threat that Osten Ard has ever endured.
The word fantasy may put many off, but this is no sword and sorcery tale of derring do, rather fantasy of the intelligent kind. It is, if I dare suggest, literature in the best use of the word, a high drama, a thriller and a horror, and filled with humanity in all of its complex, timeless essence.
As with all the best genre fiction, Memory, Sorrow Thorn refuses to be bound by the label, even as it adds depth and complexity, and reaches out to make itself felt beyond the shelves of fantasy and preconceived perception.
on 27 February 2002
I was a student in Letterkenny, County Donegal when I came across this little gem in a newsagent shop. It was the last copy, was somewhat tattered and was reduced in a sale. Being a student I was short on cash so I went for it and am I glad I did.
The Dragonbone Chair is a unique book in a unique series as it creates an entire world and peoples that are entirely believeable. The story is gloomy and desperate in parts, comical and fun in others but always gripping.
Williams can describe a scene so well that you find yourself falling into the world he has created. The main character Simon starts off as a gangly adolesent with little going for him. As the story unfolds throughout this book and the books that follow in the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series we see Simon become a brave young man.
The cities, countries, peoples, creatures and events created and described by Tad Williams are exciting, enjoyable and utterly believeable.
This book and the entire series will not disappoint even the most critical of readers.
on 7 July 1999
This book begins the quartet of "Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn," and is one of the better fantasy series currently available for reading. Well written, with a developed mythos, good characterization, and solid plotting, this series must stand as one of the better, if not among the best, of the fantasy series availble for reading. Much of the story and world are freshly rendered, and rarely does the reader encounter the overly familiar or implausible contrivances that plague so much of contemporary fantasy fiction. Nor are the characterizations idealized or juvenile. While this series does not rise, for me, to the imaginary involvement of works such as "Lord of the Rings," the first three "Chronicles of Thomas Covenant," Bradley's "Mists of Avalon," Kay's work since "Fianovar," and Martin's or Jordan's (despite its flaws) ongoing series, nonetheless, I cannot recommend this quartet highly enough.
One note of caution: Action addicts may have difficulty with the "Stone of Farewell" as the first 150 pages are devoted to establishing background and character development of the main protagonist, but I believe if they perservere, only the true adrenelin junkie will feel short-changed. And for you, there is always Eddings or Brooks or comics.
Prester John is the unchallenged High King of Osten Ard, the ruler of all the lands from the Nornfells to the southern deserts. He has ruled wisely and well - but not without bloodshed - for seven decades. Now his health is failing and his son Elias prepares to inherit the throne. Elias is strong and a canny general, but is also mistrusted for his close relationship with the sinister priest Pyrates. There is also a growing rift between Elias and his younger brother Josua Lackhand that threatens the peace.
Simon, a simple kitchen boy in the High King's castle, the Hayholt, is drawn into events beyond his understanding. A cold winter is coming, things are stirring in the far north that have not been seen for centuries and the fate of the world will turn on three lost swords: Memory, Sorrow and Thorn.
The Dragonbone Chair is the opening novel of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, a massive trilogy written by American author Tad Williams. First published in 1988, the novel was an important milestone in the development of epic fantasy. Previous fantasy novels had been split between easy reading versions of Tolkien (Brooks, Eddings) or insanely dark reactions to it (Donaldson, Cook), but Williams's novel was arguably the first to really engage with Tolkien on the same kind of playing field. It's a huge book (over 900 pages in most paperback editions, and only the first part of the story) filled with a complex backstory, numerous ethnic cultures and different races, lots of made-up names and maps. Lots of maps. And an appendix, just to show you that this author means business.
Of course, epic fantasy is a very different field in 2015 to what it was like in 1988, so does the novel hold up?
The answer is a qualified yes. This is a big, epic story which Williams tells well, with some colourful prose, some solid characterisation and development and a bit more depth to the story than it just being another Tolkien clone. The (relatively few) action sequences are well-handled and there are some evocative descriptions, particularly of the vast Hayholt and its Green Angel Tower, as well as the forbidding Aldheorte forest. The characters are a fairly diverse and interesting bunch, although Simon himself, at this early stage, is a bit too much of a wet blanket with a tendency to pass out (either from injury or magically-induced visions) every time something important happens. His companions, particularly the "troll" Binabik, are altogether more compelling in this first novel.
The book also constantly develops and restructures the stakes and the scope of the story as it goes on, bringing in more history, factions and people as it develops. This works in both the Tolkien-esque sense of starting small and branching out later on, and also in forcing a constant reappraisal of the world and the situation. It's telling to see how Prester John is viewed by his own people as a mostly just and benevolent ruler but people from other lands remember him as a conqueror.
There are some structural issues. The book can switch POVs several times in a conversation, which is a bit bewildering for those readers used to the modern convention of staying with one POV for a whole chapter, or for POV switches to be marked by at least a paragraph break. This is also not exactly the fastest-paced novel in the world. Compared to Lord of the Rings, The Eye of the World or A Game of Thrones, The Dragonbone Chair (which is only marginally shorter than the latter two) drags its feet a little. Williams is a good enough writer to make lengthy travelogues or conversations between two minor characters hold the attention, but you do realise from time to time that not actually a lot has happened in the previous hundred pages. Finally, the POV structure can be a bit jarring: much of the first half of the book is shown from Simon's POV, but the latter half introduces a ton of other ones, including some who have an important role to play but we only get a few pages with them because so much time is being spent elsewhere.
But these are both standard (for the genre) and forgivable problems, especially given that this was only the author's second novel. The Dragonbone Chair (****) may be slow to get off the mark and occasionally low-key given the scale of the events, but it's a well-written novel that is rather smarter than it first appears (this becomes more apparent in the sequels). It's well worth checking out ahead of the publication of the sequel series, The Last King of Osten Ard, due to start in 2017.
on 6 September 2012
I first read these books in about 1993. I still re-read them. After reading Lord of the Rings in '86, I was recommended many fantasy novels and read anything I could find; this series was the first one not to disappoint me, and became a favourite.
I have a deep love of incredibly long fantasy series,and do not mind in the least when an author takes time at the beginning to draw the world. I need to be able to connect with it, to build it in my own mind. I also prefer it if the world is not too dissimilar to our own, since there are already connections that I can make to ground myself so to speak. (Middle-earth is another example).
Mr Williams obviously knows mythology,(Prester John, the mythical king of Medieval times, the Sithi, the Norns, the Well) history and politics, which deepens the realism of Osten Ard. He excels in vast plots and a huge cast of characters, and those characters are invariably well-drawn. I am intrigued even if I do not like them or actively loathe them. This is also important to me as a reader, as I have no interest in plots that race along dragging poorly developed characters with them. Why would I care what happens to people if I don't know them? Characters should carry the plot, not vice versa, (In my opinion, anyhow)and in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn they do.
There are certain events that, when I re-read them, have the same impact each time. The sheer ancientness of the Hayholt, Simon's desperate journey beneath it and his visions, (beautifully described) the terrifying happenings at the Anger Stones, Oldheart Forest, Simon's first meeting (if that is the right word) with the Sitha, Jiriki, the Knock, the Bukken -- those creatures terrified me, and still do -- the spirit-journey of Geloë, Simon, and Binabik to Stormspike.
Mr Williams knows how to unravel a story from small beginnings to a vast canvas, and each time he does this the story-scape grows, becomes darker and grander until we are caught in his world-web.
One of the key points to this novel is, I think at Naglimund, when Jarnauga's relates the history of Ineluki and the creation of the sword, Sorrow. I was completely absorbed, as I am ever fascinated by the history that lies beneath events.
There is a very Silmarillion-esque feel to the Sithi and Ineluki, in Jarnauga's tale, and Ineluki reminds me of Fëanor, even to his death (the greatest accolade I could give).
History now plunges deep, and melds with ancient grief and hatred. That is the pathos of Ineluki. (I can't help actually liking this character, and being incredibly sympathetic toward him. I am pretty sure that is not supposed to be my reaction, but the more tragic a character, the more I love them). This is another example of Mr Williams skill, and one I appreciate as I want the antagonists, the villains to be more than a blank wall of evil. I think the whole history of the Sithi is a gold-mine.
As the story progresses to the search for the sword Thorn, the 'winds from the North' increase.
The imagery in this story is always wonderful; I can see, feel, smell and sense the places that Mr Williams describes, and feeling them is extremely important to me; it heightens the sense of beauty, or danger or peril and in this series the immense weight of history that was always there but is now threatening the the present. Osten Ard rests on the bones of thousands of years of conflict, and now those bones stir in an icy wind.
on 8 April 2008
This is a classic - in a whole bunch of ways.
For starters, there's just the scope and depth of it all - the land of Osten Ard with its history and culture that parallels rather than apes the medieval world, although the sources show through quite clearly - the Celtic nature of Hernystir, the Roman Empire in Nabban and so on. But this simply makes the place more real, somehow, rather than just more realistic.
Second, there is the breadth of fully realised characters - yes, there's the stock innocent young person who becomes central to the story, but the incidental and supporting characters are just as fully realised, and Williams makes them real by making them human - Elias' frustration at being overshadowed by his great father, Josua's self-deprecation, even Binabik's prejudices. This lack of idealised, perfect heroes actually endears the characters to the reader rather than alienating them, making them seem too fake.
Third, there's the plotting. From a few first threads, this novel expands, snowballing into a number of distinct plotlines, only one or two of which are anywhere near tied up at the conclusion. I found the pace of the narratives sped up throughout, until at last, with the siege of Naglimund and the quest for Thorn, it was all but impossible not to say to myself "Ok - just one more chapter, then I'll go to sleep."
This book is very, very well done.
on 2 July 2009
Well this book packs in just about everything that is totally out of vogue right now. A kitchen scullion boy with a mysterious heritage and burgeoning powers, magic swords, an elderly wizard type mentor, an evil king and his sinister hooded sidekick, a quest to find artifacts of power and of course, Dragons!
In fact pretty much everything that is seen as cliched and old hat and likely to be laughed at in an episode of Krod Mandoon is here in this first installment of what is a truly epic 4 book series!
And yet I gotta say I loved it!
The characters are beautifully and sympathetically drawn, the story is underscored with a gentle humour and the plot moves with a surprising pace and the plot elements are largely unpredictable.
In fact there are some nice variations on the 'usual'. The Elves (come on there had to be elves!) are a dispossesed and bitter people with no love of man and Trolls rather than the ogrish cave dwellers of LOTR are sensitive dimunutive mountain folk.
The book also has a believable 'authentic' feel to it, which I know sounds daft when talking about a book of high fantasy, but there you go, it has. Williams helps this process by borrowing heavily from Norse culture as both Anderson and Tolkien did before him, and also throws in a bit of Saxon and Scottish clan culture which gives a richness and texture to the individual Dukedoms and cultures.
The book has it's demands, the cast list is enormous though they build gradually so can be kept tabs on (helped by the appendices at the rear) there are also, of course, plenty of song lyrics and alien languages but the reader can choose to engage with these or not with (gotta say this along with maps is not something that rocks my world but I know many love them!)
In summary, it's good old school, high quality fantasy of the Tolkien school of writing! Yes you know the formula but then you do when you go and see A Bond film! It doesn't mean they are not great fun though.