Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Dragonbone Chair Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Tad Williams
Publisher: DAW Books
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Series:  Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn Book One
Pages: 766

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Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is one of modern fantasy’s most influential series’.  Although it is written in a style similar to Tolkien, Williams gave the fantasy genre a more adult make over without taking the conventions developed by Tolkien completely off the rails.

To say the Dragonbone Chair kicks things off for Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn would imply that Williams hits the ground running, but this book really starts at a crawl. This is an excellent novel that takes a long time to get going, and less patient readers will likely lose interest.  For those who stick around, a well crafted world with a traditional fantasy plot and well developed characters will make Williams’ story and world well worth the time spent visiting.

In the land of Osten Ard, the great King Prester John lays dying as a great evil prepares to sweep across the land. The King’s two bickering sons, Elias and Josua, have vastly different approaches to how the land should be ruled once John passes.

A kitchen scullion named Simon apprentices with the alchemist Doctor Morgenes.  He begins to learn about the world and the history of the land. Simon will be swept in a quest to save the world from the Storm King and the mysterious group of people called the Sithi that he commands.

The Dragonbone Chair feels like Lord of the Rings 2.0.  The basic ordinary man rising up to fight a dark lord, aka the Tolkien plot mold, may be what Williams uses as his over-arcing plot, but Williams’ story never feels derivative. The moment to moment situations and worldbuilding are a lot different from the situations encountered in Tolkien’s Middle Earth.  In essence Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn channels the spirit of Tolkien’s writing, but it adds modern sensibilities.

Reading Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn you can see why George R.R. Martin said this was the series that was most directly responsible for his writing of A Song of Ice and Fire.  Williams opened the door for adult epic fantasy being published, Jordan, Martin, Hobb, and many others soon followed.

Although it’s told in 3rd person omniscient, readers almost exclusively follow the adventures of Simon the castle servant who likes to dream and adventure out into the world spontaneously.  This gets him trouble with the Mistress of Maids, Rachel, but it allows readers to explore and learn about Williams’ world. Readers spend a lot of time with Simon alone which means readers will get to know him and his thoughts real well.  It does however make for a slower paced book.  In essence this is a story that doesn’t pick up continuous momentum until about page 600, and considering that this book is close to 800 pages in length …. well lets just say patience is a virtue.

The ending that the Dragonbone Chair builds up to is handled well, but it isn’t mind blowing either.  Twists in the plot are fairly predictable, but that’s come to be expected in Tolkienesque fantasy.  Where Williams truly excels is with worldbuilding.  Osten Ard is chronicled with as much detail as Tolkien described Middle Earth, with a lot of descriptions to bring the reader into the world, so that they can breathe in the fresh air. The only Tolkienesque culture that makes its way into the story are trolls, but the similarities between Tolkien’s and Williams’ take on these creatures stops with the name.

Williams’ fantasy is also low in magic. There are words in made up languages that he uses for incantations, but none of them are in English, so whatever meaning is meant to be taken from spell casting is made ambiguous.  Language, and by that I mean the languages Williams tries to create don’t come out so well.  It was this aspect of the story that bothered me the most.  Tolkien had a gift for creating languages; his various forms of Elvish felt genuine and it also had the ability to ascend to something lyrical.  Williams does not have the same gift, and many of the sections that feature non-English segments took me out of the story, rather than created an element of culture to identify with.

Williams is truly the American Tolkien – He’s American and Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is the story that most closely resembles Lord of the Rings that wasn’t written by Tolkien. If you’re looking for something similar to Lord of the Rings this is your book. If you value worldbuilding and don’t mind a more traditional story, than the Dragonbone Chair is definitely worth looking at.

Score: 8.4

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