Being the first book of The Last King of Osten Ard, a series sequel to the seminal Memory, Sorrow and Thorn.
These days references to the ground-breaking fantasy series Memory, Sorrow and Thorn by Tad Williams tend to be as an inspiration to GRR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. The similarities have been identified and are but a google search away. The danger is that Memory, Sorrow and Thorn becomes a side note in someone else’s chapter in the history of fantasy rather than getting chapter of its own, which it richly deserves.
To help make this point, Williams has now returned to Osten Ard thirty years later (both by our reckoning of years and theirs) with a new series.
Doing so after such a long gap brings its risks. Williams pulls it off, producing something familiar enough to feel like a continuation, but different enough to account for the passing years.
One problem Williams had was an inheritance of a massive cast list from the original series, combined with the need to introduce fresh characters for this one. He blends the two well, aided by the fact that he gives himself 300,000 words to do it. He avoids easy get-outs, such as having a cull of older characters in the first few pages, and is respectful of his earlier characters.
I didn’t re-read the first series before jumping in with this book, and it is quite possible to enjoy this book without having read the earlier ones. Having said that, you are a little overwhelmed with characters early on here, in a way that wouldn’t happen if it was a totally new series.
His original characters: Simon Snowlock, Miriamele, Tiamak etc — have been aged convincingly, from young heroes to weary rulers. This older cast, with their wounds both physical and emotional, combines well with Williams’ gentle, melancholy writing style.
A number of new characters are, in effect, the bad guys, and seeing their point of view definitely adds something to the tale, and is one example of Williams moving with the times in his approach to this series.
This is Williams’ strength. Of course, he is revisiting a world he created thirty years ago, but the size of it—the history, politics and religion of each culture that come together to make it a living, breathing world, remain impressive.
This level of painstaking worldbuilding is perhaps old-fashioned now, with the current penchant for in your face attitude and violence from page 1. And one issue with Williams’ style remains: the pace. Boy, I remember how slow The Dragonbone Chair was first time around. It’s the biggest barrier to people enjoying his work. And The Witchwood Crown isn’t much better—incredibly slow-build, with things only really picking up in the final quarter.
Tanahaya, a Sitha, travels to Erchester, the capital of Osten Ard, but is ambushed, almost dying from her wounds. Although the humans attempt to treat her, she remains on death’s door, and why she was targeted remains unclear.
The King and Queen, Simon and Miri, have become care worn after ruling their kingdom for thirty years, and suffering the loss of their only child, John Josua. The question of inheritance looms large, as their grandson and heir, Morgan, is considered a wastrel, though there is more to this story than most characters can see. Political troubles begin to simmer in the far-flung corners of the High Ward and they must rely on their old friends to keep the peace.
Meanwhile, in the cold dark mountain of Nakkiga, Utuk’ku, the Norn Queen, has awakened. Nezeru, a half-blood Norn Sacrifice, is assigned to a hand of Norns who are ordered to leave their realm in search of dragon blood.
In truth, there must be at least twenty POV characters here, scattered across the realms of Osten Ard. I enjoy that level of complexity, but of course not everyone will. It takes a good while, but by the end of the book you can see these threads starting to come together.
Overall, if you are ready to get invested in a deep world and a huge cast of characters, to put in the time as the story develops, then you should enjoy this tale from a master of epic fantasy.