The Witchwood Crown by Tad Williams (Book 1 of The Last King of Osten Ard)
It was with equal parts anticipation and trepidation that I began reading The Witchwood Crown, the first book in The Last King of Osten Ard series which follows the classic Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. The anticipation points are obvious: there is evidence all over this blog how deep I’ve gotten into Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, and how much I and many other readers were looking forward to continuing the story, revisiting the world of Osten Ard. And while I had no trepidation about whether it would be a good book (I’ve read almost everything Tad has written, and have enjoyed them all), my concerns were split between personal and magnanimous. Personal, in that as Tad is the GOD of Osten Ard he has the power and the right to not pursue characters and plot lines that I the self-absorbed reader would want to follow. Magnanimous, in that Tad deserves the kind of world-wide recognition and success that authors whose works came out in the Internet age of Reddit, HBO and You-Tube receive. When Memory, Sorrow and Thorn hit the presses between 1988 and 1993, an author’s legend was formed on word-of-mouth and newspaper reviews. The DAW flyer that was sent out with promotional copies described Tad Williams as a “California-based fantasy superstar.” This book, this series is and was the chance to show the world what those of us who are fans of MS&T knew was true.
I was also very interested to see how Tad’s writing experience would express itself. After thirty years of writing, plus some great collaborative editing with his wife Deb and with the experience of venturing outside of fantasy with other series, Tad’s had a lot of pages to hone his craft.
Happily, my worries on most of the above were all for naught. The Witchwood Crown is better than we could have hoped for – at times poetic in its philosophizing, blatant in its treachery, tear-jerking (no, Audrey, I didn’t cry reading this book either!) and exciting. My biggest issue was trying to slow down my reading at the end, knowing I’d be waiting twelve months for the next installment.
Though I do not believe a new reader would be lost starting here instead of reading MS&T (and the follow-on novel, The Heart of What Was Lost), I highly recommend riding the entire Osten Ard train, and then diving into this one. Or at least read the re-read eBook (shameless plug).
My reactions fall into several categories:
- Past characters – who would be in the plot? who, after 30 years, were too old to continue? who would be left out? How many times would I cry out “No, Tad! Don’t do it!”?
- New characters – how would they blend in? I’m including those characters that were introduced in The Heart of What Was Lost (THOWWL) as well here.
- Motivation – Tad has spoken in many interviews about his motivation for getting back to Osten Ard. What would be the motivation for the story, what would keep the characters moving?
- Repetition – in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, Tad paid homage to and broke some of the (at the time) well-laid and well-worn fantasy tropes. And the story of a boy who turned into a man who turned into a hero with a to-be-revealed past played well with Simon. Would we see more of that, or a different plot line? Would this be Utuk’ku vs. mankind part deus (since we know she is only in the deep sleep)?
- Differences in Tad’s writing – Tad’s older and has many pages under his belt. How would his writing show the changes?
- Continuity – there are at least two more books planned in the Last King of Osten Ard series. What will be the reason for continuing?
I will mark each section if there are potential spoilers for those who have not yet read the book. If it is on the cover blurb and freely available, I’ll assume it is not a spoiler. The potential spoiler passages will be blurred out like this next section this is a SPOILER – just hover over to see it.
One of the hardest challenges of The Witchwood Crown, of continuing a series such as Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, is how to handle the characters that Tad knew all of us had grown very attached to, while weaving in the new ones that will carry the story forward. I am totally enthralled in the way Tad is pursuing this.
Tad writes the reunions of his old characters like they are reunions between his readers and those same characters, as it should be:
But both the King and the wolf-riding apparition had stopped in the middle of the bridge and were climbing down from their mounts, paying little attention to nobody but each other.
“Binabik!” his grandfather shouted, then pulled the small figure into his arms like a father whose child had been returned to him after a long, frightening absence. (pg. 91)
While I wouldn’t call the time without Osten Ard frightening, it has certainly been long and arduous!
The returning mortal characters are 30-or-so years older, and King Simon and Queen Miri have been working to rebuild a war-torn kingdom in that time, while Simon learns what it is to rule. The interplay between these two 50-somethings is one of the best characterizations of the writing. Tad lets us see glimpses of the people that they were (Simon referring to himself as “mooncalf”, Miri telling stories about him) while showing us the people and couple that they are now. They should be enjoying the twilight of their lives, but their kingdom is under siege from forces within and outside.
He didn’t mean to sound like a hurt child, but he knew that he did. At the moment though, hidden by the darkness, he did not care. “When we argued earlier, you all but called me a ‘kitchen boy.’ As if, despite more than thirty years of being a king, of ruling at your side, I was still a child you thought you had to instruct.”
“No, no. That’s not true. It’s not even fair.” He heard her bare feet pad across the floor, felt the bed sag slightly as she climbed back in. “It’s just…sometimes I lose patience.”
“As you would lose patience with a child. Or a simpleton.”
“Simon, please. It isn’t like that. Not truly.” Her hand found his in the darkness and curled within it, like an exhausted animal looking for shelter. “I love you so much that is sometimes makes me think I would go mad without you. But sometimes you don’t seem to think beyond what you can see, what you can reach. If someone tells you the mean well, you believe them. If someone fails you but tried hard, you never punish them or even dismiss them.” (pg 590)
This occurred after the oldsters had just made mad, passionate love. Relationships are complex, even after 30 years of marriage. Tad knows this, and his depiction of their relationship is complicated and engaging. I’ve never been a big fan of Miriamele, but I am a fan of her vivid depiction: a spoiled former princess who has maintained some of her airs as Queen. She is balanced out by Simon, who she constantly chides for being too nice and naive.
As noted above Binabik is back, as are Tiamak, Count Eolair, Jerimias and others. Alas, age affects mortal men and mortal beasts. Duke Isgrimnur, a key figure in both the original trilogy and THOWWL, was old in those books and barely makes it to this one. Also, Qantaqa, Binabik’s wolf partner, has went to that great wolf home in the sky. He will be sorely missed.
Josua, Miri’s uncle, has not been heard from in quite some time, along with his wife and his twin children (who were the subject of Aditu’s prophecy – see below). This is from the book cover blurb.
Utuk’ku was, at the end of MS&T (and in THOWWL as well) in a deep recovery sleep after her defeat in To Green Angel Tower. As the book cover blurb states, she has awakened.
The Sithi are back as well, though the ones we know and love do not make their presence known until the very end of the novel.
There are two vectors here: how would the new characters introduced in The Heart of What Was Lost influence this new series? And how would new characters be integrated amongst the Simon, Miriamele, Binabik, Tikmak core group of players?
On my first reading of The Heart of What Was Lost my impression of it was that it was a nice vignette (short by Tad standards!), a standalone novel if you will, the main purpose of which was to get readers back into the world of Osten Ard and get them primed for the series. Au contraire! There are major plot points and characters that were introduced in that lovely bridge novel that highly impact The Witchwood Crown.
From The Heart of What Was Lost, the characters of Porto the misplaced warrior, Viyeki the Norn High Magister of the Order of Builders and and several half-breed Norn-mortals (which was excellently setup by THOWWL) play a roll in The Witchwood Crown, with Viyeki and his half-breed daughter Nezeru acting as point-of-view characters in several chapters. With The Heart of What Was Lost, we were able to see a Norn’s point of view, and luckily this continues even more so in The Witchwood Crown. There is no black and white/good and evil, lots of shades of grey on all sides.
Tad always has written strong female characters, and the new characters introduced here are no exception. Viyeki’s half-breed daughter Nezeru is a central character, strong but conflicted between her human and Norn selves. She is my favorite of all of the new characters introduced.
Prince Morgan, grandson of Simon and Miri, is a central character. There are some similarities with Simon from the first book; they both have some growing up to do. But there the similarities end. Morgan drinks and cavorts his way through his first chapters. Will he be able to grow out of that and be able to lead the Kingdom? Is he the titular Last King of Osten Ard? Tad writes spoiled rotten kid roles very well (see above comment about Miri), but Morgan is very complex depiction of that personality.
In my article on where MS&T fit in the history of fantasy, I wrote “From a certain perspective, Williams’ MS&T is at once an homage to LOTR and a commentary on those parts that seem a bit ‘black and white.’ I still believe this was the motivation for the series – to take the success Tolkein had with his imageries of pure good vs. pure evil, and make them more grey. I was very interested in trying to discern what Williams’ motivation for diving back into the world was…but even after devouring this first book, I do not yet know. Anticipation is a GOOD thing.
All of the characters that we followed in the first series are 30 years older. For the immortal ones, that is a minor blip; but for the mortals, many of them have reached the advanced ages of life; Simon and Miri would be in their 50s if my math is correct. There are certainly the plot points of ruling a kingdom, of lands whose rulers are less that subservient or whose rulers are in danger of being usurped. However, this is certainly not motivation enough to extend the classic MS&T.
The prophecy that Aditu foretold in MS&T about Josua and Vorzheva’s twins was seen by many as motivation. For those that don’t have it memorized (I had to go back and find it) it is:
“They will be as close as brother and sister can be,” Aditu intoned, her voice suddenly solemn and powerful, “although they will live many years apart. She will travel in lands that have never known a mortal woman’s step, and will lose what she loves best, but find happiness with what she once despised. He will be given another name. He will never have a throne, but kingdoms will rise and fall by his hand.” The Sitha’s eyes opened wide, but seemed to gaze far beyond the confines of the room. “Their steps will carry them into mystery.” (pg. 411-412 of To Green Angel Tower)
The twins are in this book, not quite in the way I’ve imagined them. I’ll leave no spoilers here because I thought the reveal was pretty sweet. But I do not think this is Tad’s main motivation for restarting the series.
Nor do I think a second battle with Utuk’ku (though with her awakening that certainly seems likely) is Tad’s motivating factor either.
I was hoping for a view into the Norns’ perspective. That came with THOWWL and increases here. The breeding of Norns with mortals, and the pursuant issues of prejudice and judgement of the pure bloods vs. half-breeds that comes with that, are a central part of the Norns story in this series, central to their survival and a major change in their culture. Williams writes scenes involving these characters very well, showing the full blood Norns disdain for their less than pure brethren.
I do not think the reason for the series has been revealed by the end of this first book, although the search for the item that is indeed The Witchwood Crown (though we readers still do not know what it is) leads me to believe that it, its backstory and its usage will provide us the answer for Tad’s return to Osten Ard.
There are several themes and plot lines that are similar between MS&T and this new novel.
MS&T can be described as a coming-of-age story of a boy that grows up to challenge dark forces led by a vengeful immortal Queen (with a Storm King side-kick, plus a mad mortal King). And that one line description could be used to describe the basis of The Witchwood Crown as well, as a lot centers on Prince Morgan who indeed has quite a bit of growing up to do.
MS&T could also be described as a treatise on love…and not just Simon’s and Miri’s. The motivation for King Elias to do the evil things he did, though it was never explicitly stated, was to go back in time to when his dear wife was alive. And let’s not forget about the love between Binabik and Qantaqa!!! The Witchwood Crown richly explores the love of Simon and Miri, but it does not seem to be as deep a theme as the first series.
There’s also a bit of familiarity of Simon and Binabik’s friendship with the one between Morgan and the Qanuc Snenneq.
I’m not pointing these out as bad things, and certainly not laziness on the writer’s part. These tie ins of familiarity are actually stimulating for readers of the first series, reminding us of what happened and how it felt to make that journey.
Differences in Tad’s Writing
It’s easy to forget that, as legendary as Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is in the annals of fantasy (see my article on SFSignal), it was the second piece of writing Tad Williams did (after Tailchaser’s Song if my history is correct). Like the characters in his book, Tad is older (though the shaved head hides it well!) and wiser…and certainly a more experienced writer. With Otherland, ShadowMarch, Bobby Dollar and other works under his belt, the pacing in The Witchwood Crown feels more natural, the characterizations more defined, the plot tighter. Some of this may be attributed to the familiarity of the world, much could be the editing of Tad’s lovely wife Deborah. It feels like a runner hitting his stride, and I can’t help but wonder if this is why Tad picked up the thread of the story…like a runner who’s feeling it and signs up for a race with confidence.
One of the knocks on The Dragonbone Chair is that it starts off slowly. There are a couple of chapters in that first book where I would agree with that sentiment – though I do enjoy the setup, the surrounding of the reader with the normalcy of Simon’s everyday life before all heck breaks loose. I personally experienced no such slowness of pace in The Witchwood Crown. I was told that I would speed through the last 200 pages – and the temptation and motivation was certainly there (though I resisted to make it last).
There are some situations here that are much more adult than the previous series, which I welcome…as they are a specific part of either the plot, or, more importantly of characterizations (especially of Simon and Miri, Pasevalles and Nezeru (not together). ).
I do not recall reading any of Tad’s books that possess more cliff hangers than this one. Perhaps the fact that I could re-read the first trilogy back-to-back-to-back made any cliff hangers seem less significant.
In this novel, it seems that almost every major character was left hanging in one form or another – or revealed something about themselves that made us wonder how they were motivated to do that. On the one hand, I’d like to poke Mr. Williams in the ribs and shout “what the hell, Tad?” for doing that to us loyal readers. On the other hand, that might slow him down from completing the 2nd book in the saga.
There are certainly more than enough plot lines and secrets to be revealed to keep this series barreling along through the inevitable fourth book (a large third book split in two equals four)!
Things I wish would have happened
These have nothing to do with anything, just random thoughts. These contain MAJOR spoilers, so tread lightly.
- Aditu’s child was Simon’s. C’mon, we’re all thinking it, I just wrote it out loud!
Qantaqa, Binabik’s first wolf, was still alive. Maybe the wolf could have had an injection of Sithi blood or DNA to make the wolf immortal.
If DAW, the publisher of this series, does a year between books, then there’s only 11 months until Empire of Grass. At least I’ve got a Packers season and the rest of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series to tide me over. Tad recently posted on Facebook that he was cleaning out the garage. If that was in any way slowing down the writing/publishing of the next novel, he could have found ample volunteers for the chore!
Tad’s trophy chest, though full of awards for bass playing, garage cleaning and promoting clowns, is empty of Hugo and Nebula awards. This books is a great story, a great start to a new series. We’ll see what else comes out this year, but The Witchwood Crown should certainly be in consideration.