A Return to Osten Ard: Tad Williams’ The Heart of what was Lost and The Witchwood Crown
As I mentioned previously, there was another series that I had returned to recently to provide a nostalgia fix. Unlike Barbara Hambly’s Darwath trilogy, though, which saw me rereading the original works, it’s been all fresh with Tad Williams’ latest series, The Last King of Osten Ard. The original series of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (consisting of a trilogy of books – The Dragonbone Chair (1988), Stone of Farewell (1990), and To Green Angel Tower (1993), though the final was split in two for resale purposes) won Williams a well-deserved place amongst the fantasy greats and paved the road later heavy hitters such as The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire. I’m pleased to say that the first offerings of this latest series have not let down the source material.
The Heart of what was Lost
Williams is nothing if not ambitious with this return to Osten Ard. Beyond the intended trilogy of full-length novels (and these are long books – ain’t called epic fantasy for nothing!), he plans to write two novellas to fit between the other works. The first of these, The Heart of what was Lost, came out before the first full book and acts as a bridge between the original and the new.
Picking up almost directly from the closing of To Green Angel Tower, The Heart does a good job at reminding the reader of the main characters, lands and history of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, while also trying out something fresh. The novella is actually really the story of a single battle, a mopping up by the human victors of the original series as the try to put to bed any chance of a resurgent Hikeda’ya troubling generations to come. If only they were so lucky.
We join Duke Isgrimnur and a sizeable force on the march north, travelling into lands still gripped by the former Storm King’s power – icy winter still blasting the Frostmarch and Rimmersgard, even late into the year. They chase the scattered remains of the Norn army – those Hikeda’ya and Tinukeda’ya who didn’t perish at the battle of the Hayholt. Inevitably, Isrimnur’s men lay siege to Sturmspeik itself, the last fastness of the Norns.
In a break with the earlier works, much of this story is from the point of view of Hikeda’ya, giving the reader insight into their culture and daily life in the subterranean city of Nakkiga. This does good work at fleshing out things only hinted at in the initial trilogy, which will be an important springboard for The Witchwood Crown, the first full novel of the The Last King series. New characters are introduced who will have roles to play in the novels to come, and there is a satisfying bit of pathos built up over the course of the work. The focus is tight, but there are some untelegraphed twists that hook in nicely to the larger story. All in all, an unusually lean offering, but one that whets the appetite for more!
The Witchwood Crown
The Witchwood Crown sees us back on familiar ground in terms of scope – we’re returned once more to the sprawling high fantasy of the original books.
King Seoman and Queen Miriamele are travelling, with full entourage, to Rimmersgard. Three decades have passed since the events of The Heart and Isgrimnur is an aged man, his once-mighty physique wasted away, leaving him on his very deathbed. The train make haste to the North, but, for political reasons, must make a detour to Hernystir in the West on their way. It is true that Seoman (still Simon, to his friends) and Miriamele rule all the lands of Osten Ard under the High Ward, but the client kings of the various states can be unruly, personal pride and expedience overriding allegiances to far-off Erkynland. True to his young self, Simon has little stomach for politicking, and it is a good thing that Miriamele, sole child of Elias, the Mad King, was reared for courtly life. Sometimes subordinates need a strong hand to remind them who truly rules.
It is during these travels that we are brought up to speed on the changed situation for the joint Monarchs and the whole of their Realm – their son, the prince John Josua, died some time ago –carried off by a fever that swept through the Ward. Luckily, he left two heirs, Princess Lillia and Prince Morgan. Unluckily, Morgan, the elder of the two, is a rake – interested in little other than wine, women and dice, he is a poor imitation of his virtuous, studious father, and certainly unfit to inherit the crown. Both monarchs have been devastated by the death of their son, which Williams is…very…keen…to tell you! If Barbara Hambly was intent on informing you Gil was a scholar, Tad is desperate for you to get just HOW DEVASTATED Seoman and Miriamele are. Perhaps I’m being unfair, and the death of child, something I’ve never even come close to experiencing, can leave parents with the degree of ptsd evidenced throughout the story, but it honestly got a bit tiresome. One of the more unfortunate aspects of the book, to my mind. At any rate, the clashes between generations are a recurring motif, as each party secretly recognises the right way forward, but, through stubbornness or self-pity, allows the situation to stagnate. It’s certainly frustrating for the reader at times, but, just as I was saying with Hambly’s approach, this is what sets the work apart. The characters are flawed, and better for it.
Meanwhile, in Nakkiga under Sturmspeik, dark things are stirring. Hikeda’ya society has changed radically after the events of The Heart, the near-sacking of the city showing the Norns that they would have to give up on many of the old ways if they were to survive in the world. But Queen Utuk’ku is finally awakening from her multi-decadal slumber, the somnolence between death and life she was cast into following the disaster at Asu’a, and there is every likelihood that she will denounce the changes, the desecrations, made in her absence. With her god-like control of the Hikeda’ya, Great Houses are known to fall at even the hint of her displeasure. Amidst this scene of tumult, a party of elite warriors are sent forth from the mountain, their mission fell and secret even to most of their number. On the edges of Norn lands they are joined by a Black Rimmersman, one of the Queen’s mortal slave-catchers – purportedly to guide them, but with motivations all his own.
The individual narrative threads soon tangle into the skein that is the hallmark of these high fantasy tomes – characters haring off to the four corners of the map on seemingly unrelated quests that you can be sure a writer of Williams’ skill will pull together in the end. The close of The Witchwood Crown sets up the next novel on several fronts: new quests are just beginning to be undertaken, a genuine threat is declared from a corner long teased at, dark political intrigue blooms from an unexpected source (this one was a bit of a gut-punch, even if -some of it- was satisfying), and the right number of secrets are revealed to keep you wanting more.
I wouldn’t say that it punches at the same weight as something like the Malazan series (the review of which, incidentally, continues to be the most heavily-trafficked of all my posts. Must have some superior SEO or something.), but that also grapples with material of a more obviously-adult nature, coupled with a more ambitious narrative style. All the same, this long-awaited return by Tad Williams scratches the right itch. If you’re a fan of the original batch, or you’re looking to fall into some epic fantasy for a few days (as one would hope, the book can read as a standalone. Appendices are supplied glossing the history of the previous books and various peoples and places referenced, for the uninitiated), I heartily recommend these new books from The Last King of Osten Ard.
Unfortunately we will have to wait until September to get our hands on Empire of Grass, the next instalment. No doubt it will be worth it!
Posted on February 15, 2018, in Reviews and tagged Epic Fantasy, Fantasy, High Fantasy, Review, Tad Williams, The Heart of what was Lost, The Last King of Osten Ard, The Witchwood Crown. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.