As a kid, I read the first volume of Tad Williams’ Otherland series, and have memories of it being just this massive, epic tome I conquered over a long period of time. I’ve assumed that these memories were, of course, somewhat exaggerated, and that as a more seasoned adult reader, I’d likely find it a little more brisk.
But then I finally got around to reading another one of Williams’ works: The Dragonbone Chair, which is the first volume in his fantasy trilogy, Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (let’s call it MST). It turns out that the man is just in the habit of writing long-winded books.
I mean that in an endearing way here, as I did enjoy the read, and intend to push on to Stone of Farewell. It’s been a while since I’ve read any high fantasy that wasn’t Tolkien, and set my eyes on MST in the hopes of finding something that would be mostly fun and not a nihilistic dumpster fire, and The Dragonbone Chair mostly provided.
Anyway, our hero Simon is an orphaned scullery boy of mysterious parentage, living in the Hayholt, which is the seat of power of Erkynland the currently dominant nation in the world of Osten Ard. Osten Ard takes the fantasy Medieval Europe pastiche a bit more literally than others, with a Church which is much more obviously meant to evoke the Catholic Church down to a lot of specific details. But it also adds on shades of America: the land was originally inhabited by elves – or Sithi, as they’re called – with humans arriving over the seas and eventually dominating over a fraught, painful history. The Hayholt itself is built over the remains of a Sithi keep.
Anyway, the story begins with Prester John, the much-beloved king of Erkynland, dying, and the throne falling to his elder son, Elias. Who quickly becomes a much less beloved king who behaves like a total jerk when drought and famine plague the land, while also palling around with this one sinister monk who practically walks around wearing a “why yes, I am manipulating the king for some evil purpose” sign. Meanwhile, a local scholar called Doctor Morgenes takes Simon in as an apprentice, hoping to give him an Education.
All this does come to a boil, but it takes a while. Williams is much more interested in worldbuilding and setting up dozens of characters and plotlines than he is in any real narrative drive; even after things get going, it still feels like it takes until the final third for things to really get going. So enjoyment of The Dragonbone Chair really hinges upon being able to savour a lot of the details
People often complain about the longueurs of The Lord of the Rings – and it is a long read, but given the amount of plot it covers, it’s rather sprightly paced. Tolkien left all the details that weren’t immediately relevant to understanding the story in the appendices, and then in all the posthumously published stuff. Fantasy authors following in Tolkien’s wake, however, have been a lot more unscrupulous in stopping to smell the flowers.
But I liked Osten Ard, and if Williams decided to dwell on a character who wasn’t interesting, there was enough stuff being juggled that it would only be a few pages before focus would recenter on someone more interesting. It’s less romantic in conception than Middle Earth, again, aiming for a much more grounded, secular history-ish feel. I get a little leery when I see obvious fantasy expies of real world religions and institutions, as it’s easy for a writer to turn these into easy strawmen for his or her own political/religious beliefs, but Williams never fell into that trap, even if he leans a little towards the proto-enlightenment characters.
Simon perfectly captures how a teenager would behave when thrust way over his head into a situation of political and supernatural strife, which is to say that he gets kinda grating and peevish at times, and tends more to react to whatever situation he stumbles into than he does take action in his own right. His own arc feels rather disconnected from all the intrigue pushing the plot forward, which makes him feel a tad weak as the de facto protagonist, (though there’s at least the promise here that he’ll grow into something more precocious down the line), and his relationship with Morgenes is very much in the vein of Wart and Merlin, but lacking the wit and charm that White brought to that dynamic. I much more enjoyed the company of the haughty troll Binabik, and his wolf friend, Qantaqua.
But anyway, I’m interested to see what eventually becomes of all this accumulated detail, and also interested to see if that interest will survive the phonebook-sized third volume.