Tad Williams, The Heart of What Was Lost (2017)

Tad Williams is a writer I’ve mentioned here a few times, and I reviewed his breakthrough trilogy, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. It got three posts altogether, so it’s clear I liked it. Having been published between 1988 and 1993, it’s one of the links between earlier post-tolkienian fantasy represented by authors like Brooks and modern, grimmer epics from Martin to Abercrombie. George R.R. claimed Williams had been an influence on The Song of Ice and Fire and it is quite possible, because despite Memory… predates Game of Thrones by eight years. So, the blurb you’ll see in a moment on the cover is not as annoying as many other of dozens upon dozens of GRRM’s stamps of approval.

It’s not the most sophisticated of fantasy series and lacks some of the shades of grey so important to books fashionable today, I admit, but it’s a well written story happening in a rich world. I particularly liked the important role given (closely based on Earthly examples) religion, something astonishingly rare in a genre where miracles actually do happen… and the elves, unusually alien and complicated. And the protagonist were likeable, and actually good people… does not happen that often now.

In my journey through the landscapes of famous fantasy series of previous decades, it  has been one of the nicer stops. Another good thing – it’s a trilogy (even if often printed in four volumes). No dozens of follow-ups of deteriorating quality.

Williams… had his ups and downs. Bobby Dollar, his attempt at urban fantasy, I found to be lacking. Written by a professional, better than disgraces like Iron Druid, but pretty derivative and forgettable. I’ve read good things about The War of Flowers, but it’s still waiting on my shelf.

Recently, Tad Williams decided to go back to his days of glory, and write another trilogy set in the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn world. First book is coming this year, and I suppose I’ll read it, but meanwhile a novella was published to remind the readers about the universe – The Heart of What Was Lost.

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A hundred and ninety-seven pages, plus appendices, telling the story of the immediate aftermath of previous books’ great war, in the far North of Osten Ard, where Duke Isgrimnur chases the Norns (Dark – though pale – Elves) to their last stronghold. They deserve it, but is it that simple? No it isn’t, of course it isn’t, and again, I have to admit Williams is not inventing the wheel here. He avoids the most obvious solutions, without really surprising an experienced reader.

The Norns feel a bit like D&D Drows here… not as evil and a little less bloodthirsty, but hierarchical, clannish, ruthless, resentful and living underground. Their good counterparts are much more nuanced and interesting, but here we meet only one of them (and she was my favourite character!). Norns are much more a stereotypical race of antagonists, with feelings and reasons, but ultimately defined by their devotion to their evil magician-queen. Well, it’s sort of the point, to show how blind attachment to the past can hollow out a culture and hasten its demise. But it worked better before, when we met the more reflective Sitha, and the unforgiving ones where just servants of The Enemy.

Some of the human leaders we know from previous novels, most of the pawns are new – and probably will feature in the upcoming trilogy. I’ve never read any of his short stories, but I believe he needs more space to fill his protagonists with character. We got some rough sketches and mostly one-dimensional figures who may become more interesting as the story develops in later volumes.

It’s a decent read for fans waiting for the next big instalment. For me, it mostly lacked the width of its longer predecessors. I had fun, but would not recommend to people new to this universe. It’s hard to even find more to write that I haven’t mentioned in earlier reviews, because, ultimately, it’s just an optional annotation to a larger story.

Score: 6/10

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2 thoughts on “Tad Williams, The Heart of What Was Lost (2017)

  1. Once again, I’m not sold 😉 Williams seems to me a middling generic fantasy writer – I might well be wrong, but that was the impression I got from the one short story of his I had read, and sadly I don’t feel an urge to check if I’m correct 😉 On the other hand, my own recent venturing into the less known areas of the genre were a mixed bag, to put it gently (Atwood!), so maybe it’s time to go back to the roots 🙂

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    • I wasn’t selling this time, was I ;-)? I’d argue it’s very good generic fantasy and worth reading when one gets sentimental, but I’m referring to the original trilogy here…

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