The Dragonbone Chair re-read – Part One – Simon Mooncalf
It has been a long time since I re-read a book, and I do not remember since college re-reading one in this fashion, where I actually am going back over chapters to find details after I’ve re-read them. Will it help me to remember the points and plots of the story when Tad Williams new series The Last King of Osten Ard comes out in the future? Time will tell.
Word of warning: This re-read post is LONG (about 4,500 words). This means the next post is going to take a bit. I haven’t studied a fiction book like this since I studied my 6502 Assembly language book (which was published about the same time as this one, and was mostly fiction).
The introductory post is here, if you are interested.
This first book is 766 pages – paperback. Part One: Simon Mooncalf goes to page 218.
A note on the obvious: if you have not read the book, since this describes said book…here there be spoilers! And color commentary is in color (mostly in this color).
Foreword – an excerpt from the book The Life and Reign of King John Presbyter, by Morgenes Ercestres. The book becomes more important as the story progresses (that much I remember) but the excerpt speaks of the mad priest Nisses.
Some who have read Nisses heretical work claim that it contains all the secrets of Osten Ard, from this land’s murky past to the shadows of things unborn.
Chapter 1: The Grasshopper and The King – Simon, a 14 year old kitchen helper, is often daydreaming and hiding from Rachel, the “dragon” of the kitchen. He is well described as a mooncalf who dreams a lot of magic and war, which makes him late for errands and chores…an interesting beginning for the hero of these books. He does enjoy being sent to Morgenes. These first few chapters are set in the Hayholt, a castle also called Asu’a, which was its old Sithi name. Much of the knock on this book/series has been that it starts slow. But upon re-read, a lot is revealed and/or foreshadowed in the first few chapters.
King John, who has united and rules over a large part of the land, and is rumored to have killed a dragon, is old, and is dying. This is the only chapter that shows King John alive, reminiscing on his life with Towser, his court jester, whom he gives his sword Bright Nail for safe keeping. He asks that it be given to his son and heir Elias; his other son, Josua, is deemed “a cynic, a meloncholic…a queer one, my younger – most especially since…since he lost his hand.”
Chapter 2: A Two-Frog Story – Simon captures two frogs and trades them to Morgenes, who tells him a bit of the history of the Hayholt and the Sithi who lived there before men came. For a while, men and Sithi lived in peace. Men built cities, including a kingdom on the rocky penninsula of Nabban. Then the Rimmersmen came on ships out of the west, landing in the north. Simon mentions Duke Isgrimnur (great name) as one of the current Rimmersmen. The Rimmersmen bring “black iron” and make war on Nabban and on the Sithi, who the iron is deadly to.
Morgenes, who is wizard or scientist, tells Simon he will make him his apprentice. This is the first chapter where Simon seems to have a connection to the castle itself…or perhaps its previous inhabitants, the Sithi. As he is touching an old stone of the Hayholt:
A voice seemed to whisper, whisper, the words too faint to hear.
Perhaps he ran his hands across this same stone.
A whisper on the wind. We will have it back, manchild. We will have it all back.(pg 25)
Chapter 3: Birds in the Chapel – Simon’s birth (Seoman) mother Susanna died at birth, father Eahlferend, a fisherman who was frequently visiting Morgenes. Williams drops the first cookie crumbs of foreshadowing who Simon is, and I still can’t remember. But it is obvious that Morgenes knows…this is no doubt why he wants him as apprentice and teaches him to read and write.
The movement caused Susanna’s right hand, which had been tightly tangled in her own hair, to sag free and drop limply to the floor. As it struck, something shiny flew from her clutching palm and rolled across the rough boards to stop near the doctor’s foot. From the corner of her eye Rachel saw Morgenes stoop down and pick the object up. It was small and disappeared easily into the palm of his hand, and from there into his bag. (pg 30)
Simon over hears an argument between old King John’s two sons: Elias the heir, and Josua, who is one-handed.
“I do not want the Dragonbone Chair – believe that, Elias,” he hissed. His words were soft spoken but they flew to Simon’s hiding place like arrows. “I merely warn you against the priest Pryrates, a man with…unhealthy interests. Do not bring him here, Elias. He is a dangerous man – believe me for I know him of old from the Usirean seminary on Nabban. The monks there shunned him like a plague carrier.” (pg 36)
Apparently Josua had something to do with the death of Elias’ wife, and Elias is still quite pissed about this. This is a very well written scene, with Simon hiding in the chapel where he frequently takes shortcuts (and is sometimes caught). And he also sees someone else spying on the two princes, but he cannot tell who they are.
Chapter 4: Cricket Cage – Simon gets Morgenes to continue his story, telling of the northmen attacking the Sithi, of the Sithi’s magic and of the Nabban empire. He describes the Hernystir who did not bow to the Rimmersmen and made a pact with the Sithi. The Er-King and his son are introduced, as in “if not for the strange, horrible magics worked by the Er-King’s son, there would likely have been not a single Sithi to survive the fall of the Castle.” Morgenes, interestingly, would not answer Simon’s questions about the Er-King’s son.
Chapter 5: The Tower Window – People are gathering as the King takes to his deathbed. Prince Elias and Prince Josua’s animosity manifests itself in their men, who are brawling in the streets and taverns.
Simon is off to the market, where he nearly gets run over by a wagon driven by a mad priest with black eyes “whose gaze burned him” (his first encounter with Pryrates). He meets Cadrach, who introduces himself as a monk, and wanders the market with Simon (and surely filches his coin purse! Saw that one coming).
Simon then decides to climb Green Angel Tower, which we as readers know plays a big part (cause the last book is named To Green Angel Tower!). He cuts through the Throne Room, which is a great scene that gives some history of the six Kings, some hints at Simon’s past and future, and some great lines:
All eight inhabitants of the room, the scullion, the statues and the huge eyeless skull, seemed to hold their breath. (pg 59)
The long dead artisan had made Eahlstan humble and reverent, but also made him bold. In his secret thoughts, Simon often imagined his own fisherman father might have looked like this.
Staring, Simon felt a sudden coldness on his hand. He was touching the Chair’s bone armrest. A scullion was touching the throne! (pg 61)
Then there is this passage as Simon searches his memory for a song of the six Kings, which matches my own motivation for writing this down…how can I read these books, remember that I did but not remember the flow, or the details?
If his own childhood seemed so long ago, he suddenly wondered, how must it feel to Prester John, who wore so many decades? Mercilessly clear, as when Simon remembered past humiliations, or soft and insubstantial, like stories of the glorious past? When you are old, did your memories crowd out your other thoughts? Or did you lose them – your childhood, your hated enemies, your friends? (pg. 60)
Coming down from the Tower, he finds a boy following him, Malachias, who he suspects is the same person he saw in the chapel spying on the two princes. He sees something familiar in the boy’s face, but the boy escapes and Simon is caught being where he shouldn’t be. I know I should remember who Malachias was (or turns out to be), and upon typing this, I have a suspicion.
Chapter 6: The Cairn on the Cliffs – Williams squeezes a lot into this 20 page chapter. There is the first interaction between Josua and Morgenes, with Josua pleading for some medicine to put King John out of his pain (and he is convincing in that is the only reason for his asking). Josua also mentions Morgenes book about the King’s life (must be an important book to be mentioned so much). The King does die (Josua hears about it as he is asking Morgenes for help) and we see the pomp and strangeness of the funeral of King John (through Simon’s eyes, as he has snuck into the chapel’s unused choir, “…and me the only servant here, he thought.”
The funeral procession is told through the eyes of Duke Isgrimnur, who reminisces about battles, boating and other memories of his friend King John. The Duke is shocked when the King’s sword, Bright-Nail, is buried with him, and put there by Josua, not by Elias, the King’s heir. Hmmmm…maybe Elias can’t actually touch the sword.
Simon meets and shares a mug of ale with Sangfugol, Prince Josua’s harper, who I’m sure we will meet again.
Simon is serving liquor (where is TABC? isn’t he underage?) at newly crowned King Elias’ celebration, and we get one of the simplest, well-written snippets where Williams shows how evil Pryrates truly is. There is a dog under the King’s table looking for scraps, and Simon is calling it to try and get it away from Pryrates.
Pryrates turned his head to look down, skinny skull pivoting slowly on his long neck. He lifted his foot and brought his heavy boot down on the dog’s back – a swift, compact movement finished in a heartbeat. There was a crack of splintered bone and a muffled squeal; the little dog writhed helplessly in the straw until Pryrates lifted his heel again and crushed its skull.
The priest stared for a disinterested moment at the body, then lifted his gaze, his eyes alighting on Simon’s horrified face. That black stare – remorseless, unconcerned – caught and held him. Pryrates flat, dead eyes flickered down again to the dog, and when they returned to Simon a slow grin stretched across the priest’s face.
What can you do about it, boy? the smile said. And who cares? (pg 88)
Chapter 7: The Conqueror Star – this is the “months pass during the new King’s first year” chapter, character building without much movement in the plot. Morgenes is teaching Simon how to read and write (even languages that he doesn’t know) and tells him to stay away from Pryrates. Also a great line, when Simon wants Morgenes to teach him magic, Morgenes says “books are magic.” As he is copying from a book, Simon has an illustration that he is fascinated by,
“…a grotesque woodcut of an antlered man with huge staring eyes and black hands. Cringing figures huddled at his feet; above the horned man’s head a flaming sun hung against a blank ink sky.” (pg 92)
Morgenes translates the caption of the illustration as The Conqueror Star (whaddya know? same as the chapter title. I wonder if that’s important?)
Duke Isgrimnur and Josua are sparing heavily, when Pryrates and Elias come down, banding words and then Elias and Josua are dueling with swords instead of words. Elias says “On the other hand… – ah that was a poor choice of words, wasn’t it?” These two brothers do not like either other much, do they?
There is discussion of the drought that has set upon the land, not painful yet, but will be soon. Simon tries in his clumsy way to woo one of the kitchen girls, who throws in a story about Miriamele (Elias’ daughter) being forced to marry Earl Fengbald, and then throws in Simon’s face that fact that she fancies (or is fancied by) a soldier.
At the end of the chapter, Morgenes shows a bit of magic, getting a letter from an almost invisible bird, from someone named Jarnuaga, telling of the White Foxes being awake again. Pryrates surprises him, and eludes that he could capture Morgenes bird messengers and extract their secrets. What we need here is some good encryption!
Chapter 8: Bitter Air and Sweet – To continue to drive home the point that Simon is just a struggling adolescent (though we know he is somehow bound for great things), Williams puts the poor manchild through some hormonally-laced struggles. It is good to see him a bit clumsy and struggling, sparing with a friend (Jeremias) to try and improve his skilz so that he can become a soldier and impress the kitchen girl.
Coming back from sparing through a shanty town full of people driven homeless by the drought, Simon thinks he sees Malachias, the boy he thought was spying on him in Green Angel Tower (see Chapter 5). The homeless folks aren’t welcoming in the least – Williams adds in small touches to show that, in spite of Simon being isolated in the Hayholt, he is seeing something of the suffering that is starting to happen during Elias’ reign as King.
There is an interesting “crossing the streams” scene where Simon is dreaming (or is he really) a shared dream apparently with several in the room and Duke Isgrimnur wakes him up (breaking the “spell”), looking for Towser. The Duke also spied the same drawing of the antlered dude that Simon was admiring in the previous chapter (ripped it out of a book? book destroyer!). Seems Prince Josua has gone missing, or has left the castle early without telling anyone, and the Duke is worried. Simon, who always seems to be in the middle of big events, over hears the conversation.
Later, Morgenes has Simon, Jeremias (Simon’s sparring partner) and a boy named Isaak in the woods looking for herbs. As they look they gossip (boys gossip?) about the plague affecting Meremund, and Jeremias keeps prodding Simon to ask the good doctor Morgenes to write a letter; apparently the lads need a recommendation to get into the military, and Simon proposes that he write the letter as practice.
Then they find a body, killed by an arrow, possibly a Rimmersman.
Chapter 9: Smoke on the Wind – Simon and Jeremias take Simon’s letter of recommendation which Morgenes signed and Simon changed after he signed it to be for both of them, not just for Jeremias (sneaky!). Count Breyugar reads the letter, and then turns them down flat; doesn’t need them, can’t afford them.
Duke Isgrimnur has a clandestine meeting in a closet with Eolar, who is the Count of Nad Mullach and the emissary of Lluth, King of the Hernystiri. The man dead in the forest by an arrow was one of the Duke’s men; he was a messenger the Duke had sent with a message to the Duke’s son, after the Duke’s liege-man Skali of Kaldskryke (who has been sucking up at Elias’ court) left.
The rest of this chapter follows Simon as he runs along the roof, finds and stalks a cat. Since Williams’ first book Tailchaser’s Song follows a cat, it should come as no surprise that a lot of time is spent on this cat (can we get some dog power?). I don’t remember exactly, but I think the cat becomes a character. Simon also has heard rumors that Earl Fengbald was going to his subjects in Falshire, then Simon sees Falshire burning.
Chapter 10: King Hemlock – Inch, Morgenes helper before Simon, comes to fetch Simon. He makes it clear that he does not like Simon taking his place. Oh, foreshadowing, Inch be thy name.
Of course, Morgenes finds out about Simon’s little forgery, trying to get into the guardsmen, and admonishes him but fiercely. Simon apologies, but says “What is to become of me?…There is no glory in the scullery, no glory among the chambermaids…and no glory here in a dark room…filled with stupid book.” (pg 139). Morgenes laughs, and responds:
“Don’t let the clanking and boasting of King Elias’ goodfellows and bravos impress you so much. You have a keen wit – well, sometimes, anyway – and you have gifts you know nothing about – yet. Learn what you can from me, young hawk, and those others you can find who can also teach you. Who knows what your fate may be? There are many kinds of glory.” (pg 140)
Morgenes also tells Simon what the guardsmen do, telling him of Fengbald and his knights putting the entire wool district of Falshire to the torch, killing six hundred of Earl Fengbald’s own subjects. The kingdom has certainly gone to pot since King John passed. And this is the guy Elias wants his daughter Miriamele to marry? Bad parenting, that.
A large crash is heard in the Hayholt the eve of All Fool’s Day. Caleb, who is to play the King of Fools the next day, says he heard voices in a language he did not understand, and saw a flash of light from Hjeldin’s Tower, where Pryrates and Elias have been known to play.
Duke Isgrimnur, Eolair and others are at the Kings tables, talking about the poor state of things in the Kingdom and asking the King for help. It gets a bit heated, then Elias ask Eolair to explain what the people are fearing:
“In the Frostmarch wastes at night, a wonderful thing has been seen – a cart, a black cart, drawn by white horses…”
“How unusual,” Guthwulf sneered, but Pryrates and Elias lock eyes of a sudden. The King raised an eyebrow as he rechanneled his gaze to the Westerner.
“Those who have seen say it appeared a few days after All Fool’s Day. They say the cart bears a casket and that black-robed monks walk behind it.”
“And to what heathen nature-sprite do the peasants attribute this vision?” Elias leaned slowly backward in his chair, until he was looking down the bridge of his nose at the Hernystirman.
“They say, my king, that it is your father’s death cart – begging your pardon, sire – and that as long as the land suffers, he shall not sleep peacefully in his barrow.”
After an interval, the king spoke, his voice barely louder than the hissing of the torches.
“Well, then,” he said, “we will have to make sure my father gets his well earned rest, will we not?” (pg 150).
Towser the jester, who obviously prefers Josua over Elias, lets Elias know Towser did indeed take the name of a dog, and sings a barely veiled song about Prince Hemlock poisoning Prince Holly.
Chapter 11: An Unexpected Guest – Simon overhears a conversation between Towser the jester, Shem and Rueben, quite drunk, where Towser talks about King John’s sword Bright-Nail – when he tried to give it to Elias as King John had asked him, Elias drops the sword.
“The look on this face,” Towser resumed, “was like a child caught doing something very, very wicked – that was it exactly. Exactly! He turned pale and his mouth went all slack – and he handed it back to me. ‘Bury this with my father,’ he said, ‘it is his sword and he should have it with him.’ (pg 158)
After the song he sung in front of the King, Towser is leaving the castle, most likely to Naglimund, still held by Josua’s people. Some still think Elias poisoned Josua, some say Josua has gone traitor.
A nice bit of foreshadowing as Miriamele looks down on Simon from her castle window, then has it out with her father the King. She can see that Pryrates is using Elias and is up to no good, but the King can’t see it…or doesn’t try.
Simon is taking a short cut deep under the castle through the storage rooms. He sees an open hatch going deeper, and with cat-like curiosity, he climbs down. He hears someone coming, and senses that it is Pryrates. Pryrates almost captures him (somehow talking inside Simon’s brain, magic eh?) but a cat (maybe the same one Simon stalks in Chapter 9?) makes a sound, and Pryrates assumes it was the cat he was chasing. Afraid to follow Pryrates back out the way he came, Simon climbs deeper, sees a light and finds Prince Josua, chained, an obvious prisoner.
Chapter 12: Six Silver Sparrows – the end of the previous chapter and this one is where Williams kicks the action into high gear. Simon runs to tell Morgenes what/who he found, and Morgenes tells Simon to go act normally and eat dinner (while Morgenes makes preparations, of course). Simon keeping this secret through dinner is very un-Simon-like, but this is a big chapter for him. Simon and Morgenes rescue Prince Josua (with Morgenes using some ingenuity and some magic to open Pryrates sealed door, leaving behind easy clues so that Pryrates knows it was Morgenes) and try to sneak him back to Morgenes room unseen (in this they fail). Simon, who has been described as walking slouched, shows his strength by carrying the Prince up from the depths of the storage rooms and to Morgenes’ chambers.
Morgenes revives a bit of Josua’s strength with a potion, similar, says Josua, to one Pryrates had been giving him because “they needed him tonight.” Tonight is Stoning Night, says Morgenes, and I don’t think he is talking lighting up!
Morgenes shows Josua a secret door and a map to get through the warrens and old parts of the castle to escape and get to his home in Naglimund. Josua leaves, and Morgenes makes preparations, but Inch has spied them carrying Josua and has sold them out (i.e., guards at the door, axes, everything except pitchforks).
Morgenes grabs some sparrows to send out messages, and to one he ties a ring (could this be the bauble that fell from Simon’s mom’s hand as she gave birth to him (Chap 3)?).
“Of course, boy,” he said, “I must make provision for you, too, just as I promised your father. How little time we had!” (pg 185)
He sends Simon into the same passageway as Josua, giving him his manuscript of the life of King John, and a globe that glows when you rub it. Morgenes stands to face Pryrates and Count Bregyugar (same dude who turned Simon down to be a guard in Chap. 9) and his guards, smashes a couple of beakers together creating a massive explosion and fire, destroying the room and sealing the door behind Simon.
Chapter 13: Between Worlds – and then, Tad slows it back down. One of the things I like about his writing style is that Williams does not tell you everything, leaving your imagination to do the work. But, sometimes the descriptions are awfully long. This chapter certainly sets the tone of Simon being lost and alone, underneath the Hayholt, having just witnessed the death of his friend and mentor Morgenes and having Pryrates scare the crap out of him. And it shows him connecting to the long-dead Sithi world, the Asu’a underneath the Hayholt.
Simon encounters, spiders, sneaks through the foundry under the castle, finds beautiful life-like sculptures that disintegrate upon touch, and generally is lost in the caves. He hears the voices in his head, and then he hears new voices speaking to him in a language he does not recognize. He hears and experiences ancient history, the Sithi being overrun in Asu’a by the Rimmersmen. Simon is somehow attached to the castle and its previous inhabitants.
Something was gone. Something beautiful had been destroyed beyond retrieval. A world had died here, and Simon felt its failing cry embedded in his heart like a gray sword. Even his consuming fear was driven out by the terrible sadness that cut through him, bringing painful, shuddering tears from resovoirs that should have been long dry. (pg 203)
Chapter 14: The Hill Fire – I enjoy writings where you as the reader are uncertain which is reality and which is fantasy; what is a dream and what is real. Dan Simmons did an entire book on this with Drood. Williams does it very well in several scenes in the previous chapter, and this, the last chapter of the section.
This is the chapter where Memory, Sorrow and Thorn goes from a few bad guys trying to gain power to the serious good versus evil that has been foreshadowed.
Simon emerges from the cave, obviously bewildered, hungry and a bit loopy (as they say!), not sure what was real and what was imagination:
And why did the others lie so unmovingly, their shadowy shapes fantastic with helmets and shields, laid out on their beds in neat rows, like…like the dead awaiting judgement? It had all been a dream…hadn’t it?! (pg 204).
He shuffled away from the cave and the castle, falls asleep and dreams…or does he (are we seeing a pattern here?). He dreams of his mother, calling him, perhaps to cross over and join her? But when he awakens, he still hears someone calling his name.
Cold and hungry, he is drawn to a fire on the hilltop. But this is no weenie and marshmellow roast on the hill, of course – it is Pryrates, and it is Stoning Night. Simon seems to have stumbled again right into the middle of the action, for this is what Pryrates wanted Josua for. A cart followed by black-robed men whose skin is white (the white foxes Morgenes talks about and sent and received messages about in Chapter 7 and that Eolair talked about in Chapter 10. A covenant, a trade of sorts has been agreed to; in Josua’s place is Count Breyugar (see what you get for not letting Simon into your guardsmen?). When Breyugar is sent forward, Elias acts like he is unaware of a promise, and that Breyugar “will take the promised one’s place.” Is he simply dazed by Pryrates, or does he really not know that they were going to sacrifice his brother?
Pryrates almost discovers Simon, but Simon shows again an interesting willfulness to resist Pryrates.
The priests do a chant (do a little dance, make a little love, get down to night – it is not), Pryrates slices Breyugar’s neck, spilling blood on the coffin on the cart. The coffin lid opens, as if by itself.
At last what was inside could be seen.
It was a sword. It lay inside the box, deadly as an adder; it might have been black, but a floating sheen mottled the blackness, a crawling grey like oil on dark water. The wind shrieked.
It beats like a heart…the heart of all sorrow.
Calling it sang inside Simon’s head, a voice both horrible and beautiful, seductive as claws gently scraping his skin.
“Take it, Highness!” Pryrates urged through the hiss of the wind. Enthralled, helpless, Simon suddenly wished he had the strength to take it himself. (pg. 217)
Of course, Elias takes the sword, which seems to invigorate him, saying he will take the master’s gift and honor the pact. He then say “hail to Ineluki Storm King.”
Wasn’t that the same person that Simon saw in Morgenes’ book, and ripped the picture from? Hmmm.
Here is a link to the next part of the re-read.
Even after you read the re-read, I highly recommend reading the books and Tad’s words. Click on the covers below to find them on Amazon.