Tad Williams
The Dragonbone Chair (Volume 1 of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn)
DAW Books 1988

Tad Williams
Stone of Farewell (Volume 2 of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn)
DAW Books 1990

Tad Williams
To Green Angel Tower (Volume 3 of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn)
DAW Books 1993

In the Hayholt, a castle older by far than the kingdom of Erkynland, Prester John, the king, is dying. He will be succeeded to by his eldest son, Elias - and Elias' advisor Pryrates, the evil priest and magician. At first, Elias' regime is characterized by tournaments and merriment, but the merriment turns into terror when the king starts to show his power in more and more brutal ways, not caring about the hardships of the peoples of his empire: the White Foxes of old stories reappear, and giants once more comes down to inhabited areas, and the weather is turning strange, but the king doesn't do anything to help. He actually withhold those nobles who wants to go to their own countries to help set things right, he raises the taxes and kills those who protest.

Simon is just an orphan kitchen boy in the Hayholt, sometimes helping the learned Doctor Morgenes while wanting the old man to teach him magic. He is no hero, but because of events more or less outside his control, he has to flee the castle, which is the real beginning of an enormous adventure which will take him and friends of his across to known world in a desperate hunt for a solution to the problems Elias and Pryrates has gotten the world into...

I could tell you page up and page down about those adventures and still only tell the very beginnings, because this is a true epic - in size, as well as in content. But I think it's wiser to read the trilogy for yourself, because Mr Williams has got not only a great story to tell, but also an amazing way of telling it. What a richness of expressions, what a talent for making a fantasy world truly come alive! You can feel the cold and the rain, the ache of the untrained rider spending too much time in the saddle, but also the corresponding pleasure of a safe haven, a decent meal and a warm bed, as well as the pride and horrors the heroes and villains are experiencing. Of course, if you think a story should be told as fast as possible, you will become quite frustrated, especially with the beginning of "The Dragonbone Chair", when Simon is still in the Hayholt. But just keep on reading - although the language is enormously rich, there is also plenty of action, romance, tragedy, war and interesting new cultures and people to discover.

In a way, mr Williams has created an alternative 10th century Britain . There are the vikings (the Rimmersmen), the celts (the Hernystiri) and the Anglo-Saxons (the Erkynlanders) with Prester John as their version of king Alfred. There are also for instance a former Greek/Roman empire (Nabban). But there are also the Sithi (elves), who once ruled the world, as well as their cousins the Norns and other non-human races. Some of those races, like the trolls, are inventive and memorable, while some, like the dwarrows, are just inventive. The most memorable of the non-human races is in my opinion the Sithi. They are, as their name also implies, based on the elves of Celtic mythology, but they are still quite unique, their indescribable alien way of thinking masterly described through for instance the board game of Shent, which Simon spends a lot of time trying to, if not master, then at least get a basic understanding of.

I think everyone who read this series will get their own favorite character, as there are plenty of them to choose from. Personally, I just love Dinivan, the lector's secretary. The lector is the pope of the Mother Church, Osten Ard's dominant religion. The religion is more or less a carbon copy of the Roman Catholic church of Medieval Europe, but the lector is a nice old fellow and his secretary the type of guy I've always wanted to be: intellectually open-minded, religiously devote and with a ironic distance to himself. Anyway, a world full of that type of nice guys tend to be quite boring, not to live in but to read about. Fortunately, the Mother Church has also fostered the devilish priest Pryrates, whose unscrupulous search for dark knowledge and power has gotten the world into its current crisis. Other characters you really should be acquainted to include Binabik, the wise little troll, Father Strangeyard, the nervous old librarian, Cadrach, the deceptive monk full of dark secrets, Prince Josua Lackhand, Elias' serious and somewhat melancholic younger brother and, of course, Miriamele, Elias' strong-headed daughter who runs away when her father wants her to marry one of the up and coming young noblemen of his court. But among the heroes of this great saga, there are at least two dozens of other characters who are strong enough to become your personal favorite.

"Memory, Sorrow and Thorn" is not that unique, really. The world is not a master-piece of inventive imagination, it's too close to real European history, but it's one of the most believable fantasy worlds I've discovered so far. The plot is, when structurally analyzed, quite close to the standard fantasy plot. But I've never seen it built with such skill, nor heard it told with such elegance and style. Many of the characters have their equivalents in other fantasy epics, but they have never been given such depth before, Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" excluded. But even though Tad Williams himself describes the trilogy as a dialogue with Tolkien's masterpiece, I think it's more appropriate, for many reasons, to compare "Memory, Sorrow and Thorn" to other modern fantasy epics, like Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time"-series or David Eddings' "The Belgariad" instead. And then Tad Williams is the unconquered master.

Karl Henriksson

Order your copy from Amazon.com now:

The Dragonbone ChairHardcover
The Dragonbone ChairPaperback
Stone of FarewellHardcover
Stone of FarewellPaperback
To Green Angel TowerHardcover
To Green Angel Tower, pt IPaperback
To Green Angel Tower, pt IIPaperback

See also Fantasy Finder's guestbook: 960523, 970202, 970217, 970305, 970312, 970428, 970707.

Otherland, the official Tad Williams home page.

Reviews - FantasyLinks - BoardRoom - Top 5

Henriksson & Henriksson 1996.