Memory, Sorrow and Thorn by Tad Williams. One of the solid series from the times when the Epigoni of Tolkien produced countless fantasy epics deprived of the depth of The Trilogy, but sometimes smart and fun. Sometimes catastrophically, mindbogglingly boring, like The Wheel of (too much) Time. Often though, more then a decent read for our troubling times. Grimdark I have on the news 😉
I’m halfway through, so it’s not a review of the entire series, but I’ve read enough to say a few thing and, lets be honest, I might like it, but it’s not going to surprise me too much.
I’ve posted a short quote from the first volume not so long ago, and it gives a prospective reader a good sample of what to expect. Not groundbreaking, but well written and, well, the sentiment is right, hard to argue with that.
We got hero, an orphan scullion with mysterious origins, his travel through life and magical lands, clearly marked villains, fairy elves, legendary swords, good prince and bad king. And a haughty princess that mellows out in time. Good old stuff. Reminds me of this 🙂
On these merits I would defend it readily enough. But it has many strengths that allow me to put Williams somewhere with the likes of Feist among the 1000 books I’d take with me to a deserted island to pass time and keep my spirits high. Way better not only than Jordan, but also Brooks. Maybe because he kept it relatively short, only four 800-pages long volumes? Well, now there will be more, but he is still relatively concise, as fantasy writers go…
There are gentle little twists of genre tropes. Ancient evil that rises to cover the world in darkness – comes from a great tragedy and one can say that humanity had it coming. Good king, dying of old age just before his kingdom falls into despair, might have been a relatively good ruler, but still a conqueror of nations and a killer of many, capable of striking at a foe lying down, when necessary. The princess is not a mere damsel in distress, however annoying she tends to be. For a young girl faced with tragedies and challenges far beyond her experience – and powers – she fares pretty well. Without the supernatural help main male protagonist gets. Royal blood seems to be less useful than favour of the old powers. Williams’ women are strong – or weak – but so are the men. They try to achieve what they can with what they are given. More on the topic in that interesting post.
Tragedies and violence are there, even if not as graphically depicted as in some recently reviewed books. Old jester telling a story of his love to a servant girl in a conquered nation, whom she courted with extra food… rapes that are implied rather than gleefully described in detail… that’s actually refreshing after all the grimy realism of many newer novels. And no less powerful to an imaginative reader.
The worldbuilding is more than decent. We have a fairly large world with distinct cultures, several races and relatively complex political system. Pretty deep history, too. And some of the best elves (Sithi) I’ve ever met in fantasy. They are alien, they are ancient, they are beyond our protagonist’s comprehension and I could find in them an echo of the melancholy Tolkien’s elves always made me feel. There is some uniqueness, but inspirations are clear enough. But they inspired a competent writer, which is not often the case.
There is also religion. Unabashedly Christian-like church rules the souls of men and women of Osten Ard, with beggar monks, powerful bishops and a founder who ended up on a hanging tree (not Odin-like, there are Nordic pagans in the North and they used to have their pantheon before the new religion was forced upon them). So far all the magic has origins predating the establishment of this cult and there is no proof of any truths behind its doctrines, but that doesn’t stop the priests from meddling in politics. Altogether, a nice but not crucial addition to the universe.
The structure of the series is well thought-through, with the first volume setting the scene and important things happening in the second one, giving some glimpses at the final conflict, but leaving enough unsaid. Well, unless the reader in genre savvy 😉
Also, though I’m not sure if it’s a recommendation any more, with the inflation of blurbs given away far too easily, GRRM claimed Williams as one of favourite authors and an important influence 🙂
Solid 7-7,5/10 for the first half of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.
And the concluding part of my Memory, Sorrow and Thorn review is here.