Five hours had passed since I’d first opened the book that evening. It was a good thing that my roommate had gone out of town. The fluorescent reading lamp next to my bed had been on all night. I told myself that I’d stop at the end of the next chapter. I had classes the next day, after all. But I couldn’t stop. The chapter had ended on a cliff-hanger; our hero was faced with a brand new danger. A pack of wolves were coming, and they were still far from the witch’s house, which was no certain sanctuary. Maybe just one more chapter? Oh, wait… we’re following a new set of characters now. The way this book was set up, I wouldn’t get closure for another chapter yet. I guess I could power through the stories of a harried Count trying to get an audience with an increasingly unhinged king.
I chased that high of anticipation until the morning light peeked through the window. I got no sleep that night, and it was all because I was reading a book. I was in college, huddled in bed, and addicted to a fantasy novel series.
Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn
The framework of these books were Tolkien all over again. The author, Tad Williams, would be the first to admit to that: “I was looking for originality and what I was getting was warmed-over rehashes of Tolkien. Eventually, it occurred to me: I can do better than this.” Shannara, Wheel of Time, Dragonlance… there seemed to be something in the air during the 80’s where everyone acknowledged that Lord of the Rings was good, but elements were starting to come across as clunky and archaic. What if we rewrote the saga but didn’t make it sound like it was written by an Oxford linguistics professor?
Williams has a knack for descriptive dialogue. He takes his time setting the scene. Some find it slow — I have read many complaints online how readers struggle with the first 150 pages of Dragonbone Chair (the first book in his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy). Personally, I find it evocative. We’re setting up a world that until now only exists in the author’s imagination. Why not linger over every detail to paint a picture of what you see in the reader’s mind?
Consider, for example, how Williams luxuriates in his description of the titular Dragonbone Chair, which I imagine would take other writers all of two sentences:
The bones of the chair were huge, thicker than Simon’s legs, polished so that they gleamed dully like burnished stone. With a few exceptions they had been cut and fitted in such a way that, although their size was evident, it was difficult to guess in which part of the great fire-worm’s mighty crass they had once sheltered. Only the chair back, a great seven-cubit fan of curving yellow ribs behind the king’s velvet cushions, reaching far above Simon’s head, could be seen immediately for what it was — that and the skull. Perched atop the back of the great seat, jutting far enough to serve as an awning — if more than a thin film of sunlight ever penetrated the shadowed throne room — were the brain-case and jaws of the dragon Shurakai. The eye-holes were broken black windows, the teeth curving spikes, as long as Simon’s hands. The dragon’s skull was the color of old parchment, and webbed with tiny cracks, but there was something alive about it — terribly, wonderfully alive.
See? The verbal imagery, it stirs! I can see the fit and finish. I can almost imagine the craftsmen who were sanding down the pieces so that they clicked together. Shoot, I can almost hear it.
Our fantasy epic centers around Simon, a young man who is violently thrust outside his comfort zone to go on a hero’s quest. He befriends the Tad Williams version of a hobbit and the Tad Williams version of an elf. Simon goes on long trips that take him from point A to point B, which take him through woods, plains, tundras, and other locales common in a typical D&D campaign.
You know the drill.
The underlying theme of the saga is the pursuit of truth. It doesn’t take long for Simon to become incredibly cynical. The newly crowned king is hiding dark secrets under his heroic bravado. When he tries to join the army, he learns that the propaganda of heroic exploits don’t match the official record. Religion is a major subject in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. Osten Ard, the saga’s Middle-Earth, worships a figure named Usires Aedon, a man who was executed by being nailed to a tree. Believers show their faith through a gesture known as the Sign of the Tree. (I see what you did there, Mr. Williams.) While Simon has no reason to doubt his faith when living within the cozy confines of the castle, he soon loses his belief in any gods as he witnesses suffering firsthand.
These likely were a reflection of Mr. Williams’ own struggles. His notes for To Green Angel Tower call it “The Book that Ate My Life”.
For one thing, I was already horribly behind schedule. We (my publishers at DAW and I) had planned that I would write one volume a year, and I was something like two and a half years behind deadline before I even began TO GREEN ANGEL TOWER.
It also coincided with a very difficult part of my life, where — among other things — my first marriage ended. I was a mess.
Tolkien’s Middle-Earth feels like it’s being told purely from a Euo-centric perspective, where the heroes are justifiably eying Orcs and Southrons with suspicion. Hobbits are always suspicious of strangers, and that’s portrayed as a good thing. By contrast, Williams’ world is international. A pope-like figure finds his home in a country resembling the Western Roman Empire. A society based on the Scandinavians hail from the north, their religion an amalgam of the mainstream Aedonite faith and its polytheistic predecessor. Beyond that, though, there are hints of a world beyond the borders. One character hails from Kwanitupul, a city that seems based on African and Indian cultures. Why wouldn’t this sort of city exist in a Medieval setting, after all? Osten Ard’s global reach seems more realistic to me than Tolkien’s isolationist societies.
Williams seemingly dips his toes into science fiction with the Otherland series (City of Golden Shadow, River of Blue Fire, Mountain of Black Glass, and Sea of Silver Light), though I would argue that this is a Tolkien saga dressed in Daft Punk cosplay. More on that later.
Otherland is set in the near future. People boot into a virtual reality world using rigs that you have to jack into, where the stakes fall squarely within the rules of “if you die in the virtual world, you die in the real world”. (Mostly through heart attack from the experience feeling so dag blasted real to the people experiencing it.). The Matrix, Ghost in a Shell, Blade Runner, and William Gibson cyberpunk novels have done much to manage our expectations. This is going to be all dingy alleys and bleak cityscapes, right?
Once again, Williams expands the boundaries beyond the unwritten confinements strapping the genre to rote characters and rehashed scenarios. It much like how he hints about Kwanitupul, only this time the settings are of places you can find on your world atlas. Two of our main characters, Renie and !Xabbu, are based in South Africa. Rather than being strongly tied to virtual friends in a virtual world, their situation revolves around a tight-knit community in the real world. Renie must handle a drunk dad and a jealous ex-boyfriend.
Another protagonist is a sickly, bedridden kid. Yet another is a blind French woman who can feel around the virtual world using her synthesia. They’re being pursued by an assassin who is an Australian aborigine. Tradition and folklore play a strong part in defining each character, with Otherland serving as the next evolution. !Xabbu, for example, wants to see his Bushman traditions live on in virtual reality. The assassin, meanwhile, finds new outlets which with to extend his identification with an Aboriginal myth creature.
You know what threw me off about Otherland, initially? Everyone behaves too nicely. Even the killer! Everyone knows online interactions are vulgar. Even Ernest Kline of Ready Player One tries to reflect this aspect of online oneupmanship. How come most of the characters display a civility so contrary to what anyone experiences in real life.
Well… did people in real medieval societies resemble the noble heroes in Tolkien? We’d like to think so, but more than likely they were also rude and vulgar. Fantasy, though, is where we go to escape, which sometimes means receiving affirmation in the goodness and decent of others.
Otherland is that fantasy setting in cyberpunk clothes. It’s where an elderly man inviting a young girl into his secret room turns out to be a decent man, after all. Or where a virtual reality simulation based on Egyptian mythology is one of the most desirable and active places in cyberspace.
Which is why, too, the virtual worlds aren’t space marine scenarios or zombie shooters, staples of the modern multiplayer market. Otherland has a whole world that features giant insects. Why? Because it’s where scientists hang out to observe animal behavior. How in the world does observing giant virtual reality critters help scientists? Beats me. What matters is that these VR worlds have a purpose beyond pure entertainment.
Incidentally, there were some rumors of Otherland being optioned as a movie some year back, but I think it might be dead. Especially with Jason Segel’s similarly titled Otherworld (also about virtual reality worlds) grabbing all the attention lately.
How about cats?
Depending on how you react to the words “Tolkien, but with cats”, you are either going to love or hate Tailchaser’s Song. Take a look at this bonkers excerpt from Wikipedia:
Tailchaser’s Song begins, after quoting a poem by Christopher Smart, with an exposition of the central elements of the cats’ mythology, starting with a creation myth. This both frames the further developments of cat mythology and culture throughout the story and provides necessary backstory for the novel itself. Meerclar Allmother is identified as the primordial creator of all other beings, who brought forth a pair of cats who are the progenitors of the entire species as well as divine figures. Harar Goldeneye is the male, and Fela Skydancer the female. The first litter of this pair are also divine. These three cats are called the Firstborn; the middle child, Grizraz Hearteater, raises a monstrous hound out of jealousy and sets it to attack all cats.
See what I mean? That’s utter madness. This is even before we get introduced to the main character, whose name is Fritti Frickin’ Tailchaser. That excerpt I posted? That was the Silmarillon portion of the book.
I remember reading this book many years ago and finding it fine. Again, Williams’ visual writing is the highlight here. He’s got ways of describing horrible cat monsters that manage to stick with you for many years. In the end, Fritti discovers that cats… they gotta be free to wander the world like a vagrant in the wild, man. This moral should resonate very strongly with all you Heathcliff fans out there.
Ultimately, I found this less essential than Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, but a much faster read. If you’re pressed for time and would like an introductory Tad Williams book, this isn’t a bad place to start.
Wikipedia also tells me that there’s a Tailchaser’s Song animated movie coming out next year by the guy behind Rise of the Guardians (you know, m the movie with the sexy teen dream Jack Frost), so look out for that.
Another light read (and by that, I mean less than 900 pages long) is his single-volume fantasy tale War of the Flowers. This reads a little more like Narnia, but with the four Pevensie children replaced by a rock-and-roller named Theo Vilmos. He’s whisked away to a fantasy world and pals around with a tiny fairy named Applecore. Theo gets wrapped up in a power struggle between rival houses with names like Primrose and Daffodil and it’s all rather weird. It’s got a lighter tone as that of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn… and it should, being that it’s a book about weird little fairies.
Willams also wrote the Bobby Dollar series, which is about an angel who’s wrestling with the temptation of sin. I have not read this series yet, but I imagines that it taps into Williams’ respectful rumination on religion and morality. He also wrote Caliban’s Hour (which I did read), following the monster from Shakespeare’s play. You got to hand it to the guy: he’s not the sort of guy that gets stuck exploring the same setting over and over again.
Most recently, Williams has returned to the series that originally made his name. The Heart of What Was Lost, published earlier this year, follows the world of Osten Ard after the last book, To Green Angel Tower. Meanwhile, Williams has started a new trilogy. The Witchwood Crown, published June of this year, begins The Last King of Osten Ard series, which picks up several decades after the end of the original trilogy. If you ever wanted to revisit Simon and Miriamele and all your friends in a fantasy kingdom far, far away, then 2017 was your year.
Which circles back to where you should start: The Dragonbone Chair. If you’re a fan of the Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, I highly suggest the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series. The story may seem familiar, but its secrets are in its nuances: its world building and its exploration of faith. Shoot… George R. R. Martin claimed that Williams was one of his influences: “Tad’s fantasy series, The Dragonbone Chair and the rest of his famous four-book trilogy, was one of the things that inspired me to write my own seven-book trilogy. I read Tad and was impressed by him, but the imitators that followed – well, fantasy got a bad rep for being very formulaic and ritual. And I read The Dragonbone Chair and said, My god, they can do something with this form, and it’s Tad doing it. It’s one of my favorite fantasy series.”