Monday, May 1, 2017

Monday Musings: Osten Ard Reread: The Dragonbone Chair

When I listed my top 10 most anticipated books for 2017, I included a couple of books from Tad Williams, an author known for his "doorstop" fantasy and sci-fi novels. He tends to write four-book trilogies*, with the occasional standalone novel**. This year he has already released The Heart of What Was Lost (a short novel -- especially for Williams -- set shortly after his original Osten Ard trilogy Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn) and in June the first volume of a new trilogy set in Osten Ard is coming to my doorstep bookstores.

In the spirit of getting ready for the new trilogy (which only has three books announced so far, but really five if you count THoWWL and another ancillary novel set to come out between the main novels of the trilogy), I'm rereading the originals. (Also, it's been approximately 12 years since I reread the second and third volumes and something like 3-5 years since I last read The Dragonbone Chair in an attempt to reread the series that was ultimately derailed by my reading attention deficit disorder.)

So, without further long-winded ado, here are my thoughts on The Dragonbone Chair (the third time around). I will probably spoil some things, but I will keep all spoilers limited to this book in case anyone hasn't read the series yet.

The Dragonbone Chair is not a seat-of-your-pants thriller like many other fantasy epics these days. It takes a note from Tolkien and uses a measured pace in the first third of the novel, building up Simon's character and the looming conflict in his world. While I have heard others find the novel's pace dull or at least slower than necessary, I don't remember thinking that way in my previous readings. I certainly didn't this time; instead, I appreciated not having to rush from chapter to chapter from the start. I enjoyed lazing about with Simon on warm afternoons, perhaps all the more because I knew some of what was in store for him.

One thing I recall strongly from my first reading of these books was that, despite some similarities to Tolkien, there were certain expectations I had which the story either did not meet or flipped on their heads. The main one that disappointed me was a certain character who dies near the end of part one never returning from the grave a la Gandalf the White (though his influence is keenly felt through the rest of the trilogy). Looking back, this is a wise choice on Williams' part, and likely a very conscious one. Osten Ard is NOT Middle-earth. It's a precursor to Westeros (Martin has acknowledged the series as one of his inspirations), but it still clings to the ideals of heroism and valor even as it examines them from a more skeptical modern viewpoint. (When I began this reading, I noticed that Williams' preface includes a warning to those who think they know the end of a journey before they begin. I should have paid more attention to that the first time.)

While there was much I remembered this time through, there was also a great deal I'd forgotten. At the very least, I had forgotten the placement of certain events. The visit to Geloe the valada (whatever that means; I hope Williams expounds on the term in the new books) kept taking longer to happen than I recalled. Simon's time in the Hayholt had a lot more plot packed into it than I recalled. For some reason I kept thinking Simon was in Isgrimnur's camp for more than a chapter (though I remembered the scenes with the Bukken rising from the ground to attack very vividly).

As often happens when I reread a book, certain phrases and images felt achingly familiar as I read them again for the first time in years, though I would not have been able to recite them or recall them only moments before. (Unfortunately, some of these were not the most pleasant, such as when Pryrates the mad priest kills the dog in front of Simon during a feast. Every time I read this scene, I remember the shock of it from the first time.)

An advantage I had this time around was knowing how much of what comes in the later books is set up skillfully in this volume. Plotlines are begun as examples of the wider effects of King Elias' rule and the pacts he has made with the Norns. Characters are introduced as minor actors who later become quite important. Small exchanges and offhand comments -- fully justified by their building the scenes and the world -- are explored in more detail later on. It was thrilling to see the many pieces being set on the board.

My favorite characters have remained fairly steady over the years: Simon, Binabik, Josua, Jiriki, Morgenes. I've grown to like Miriamelle and Isgrimnur more in this first book, though their growth later is what makes them unconditionally favorites. Maegwin's story feels far more poignant this time around now that I've experienced life as a parent, a spouse, and an adult. Cadrach continues to be a frustratingly recurrent figure. Pryrates is still a villain supreme who knows it (I mean, the man dresses all in red and has no hair whatsoever on his body; if that doesn't scream evil mastermind, I don't know what does). Elias was far more sympathetic in my mind this time around, though I still think him a great fool. Guthwulf . . . well, I can't say what I think about him because "Spoilers."

In the end, this book held up to my nostalgia and more developed critical tastes. It's not going to be for everyone, but I think it's a crucial step in the post-Tolkien fantasy genre. Williams, far more than Robert Jordan or G.R.R. Martin, examines the tropes and values of Tolkienian fantasy and begins to play with the threads to create a new tapestry.

Have you read The Dragonbone Chair? What were your favorite parts?

*Including the paperback edition of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, because To Green Angel Tower was too big for a single-volume paperback edition. The Shadowmarch series was expanded from three to four books when Williams was writing it. I'm not sure if Otherland was originally meant to be three books or not, but the fact that his other series were three/four books, I have my suspicions.

** I have not read War of the Flowers, though I expect I will enjoy it when I do. His first novel, Tailchaser's Song, is a gorgeously mythic book about cats that (from what I hear) is everything the Warriors series should have been. I need to reread it when I finish with Osten Ard.


  1. Ironically, The War of the Flowers is the only book of his I have read. And it's been years so I don't really remember it very well. But I borrowed it from my sister again recently as I was curious to reread it. I need to actually do that. ;)

    1. There's usually a copy of it at our local used book store. I may have to pick it up next time I'm there.


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