Right off the bat, let me tell you just how great it was to finally return to the world of Osten Ard! I read To Green Angel Tower when it initially came out in 1993, so I've been waiting for over two decades to discover what happens next. Many thanks to Tad Williams and his wife Deborah for sending me a set of page proofs of The Heart of What Was Lost a couple of months ago so I could have an early read of one of my most eagerly anticipated speculative fiction titles of 2017! I knew that bottle of wine I supplied for a dinner a few years back would pay off one day!
One thing about the cover blurb before I begin this review, though. Williams mentioned that this tale was meant to be a novella which ultimately grew in size and became a short novel. With the blurb stating that The Heart of What Was Lost is the perfect introduction for new readers, I was afraid that the story would have been padded with material meant to refresh readers' memories and provide newbies with enough information to understand what is going on. Thankfully (or not), for Williams fans at least, absolutely no effort is made to reacquaint readers with the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn storylines. The page proofs I read contained no "what has gone before" section, but here's to hoping that the final version will. As it was, I had to go back and reread the notes I took when I first read the series back in the 90s.
Hence, I must stress out the fact that this book is not meant for anyone not familiar with the characters and plotlines of the original trilogy. If you have yet to visit Osten Ard, then The Heart of What Was Lost is definitely not for you. Read The Dragonbone Chair and its sequels. This one is a vignette of sorts focusing on the aftermath of the fall of Ineluki and the events which will come to be known as the Siege of Nakkiga. Without any context, it would likely make for a lackluster read. But for fans who have been waiting for years for exactly this, this book is a doozy!
Here's the blurb:
New York Times-bestselling Tad Williams’ ground-breaking epic fantasy saga of Osten Ard begins an exciting new cycle! • Perfect beginning for new readers! The perfect introduction to the epic fantasy world of Osten Ard, The Heart of What Was Lost is Tad Williams’ follow-up to his internationally bestselling landmark trilogy. Osten Ard inspired a generation of modern fantasy writers, including George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, and Christopher Paolini, and defined Tad Williams as one of the most important fantasy writers of our time.
A NOVEL OF OSTEN ARD At the end of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, Ineluki the Storm King, an undead spirit of horrifying, demonic power, came within moments of stopping Time itself and obliterating humankind. He was defeated by a coalition of mortal men and women joined by his own deathless descendants, the Sithi. In the wake of the Storm King’s fall, Ineluki’s loyal minions, the Norns, dark cousins to the Sithi, choose to flee the lands of men and retreat north to Nakkiga, their ancient citadel within the hollow heart of the mountain called Stormspike. But as the defeated Norns make their way to this last haven, the mortal Rimmersman Duke Isgrimnur leads an army in pursuit, determined to end the Norns’ attacks and defeat their ageless Queen Utuk’ku for all time. Two southern soldiers, Porto and Endri, joined the mortal army to help achieve this ambitious goal—though as they venture farther and farther into the frozen north, braving the fierce resistance and deadly magics of the retreating Norns, they cannot help but wonder what they are doing so very far from home. Meanwhile, the Norns must now confront the prospect of extinction at the hands of Isgrimnur and his mortal army. Viyeki, a leader of the Norns’ military engineers, the Order of Builders, desperately seeks a way to help his people reach their mountain—and then stave off the destruction of their race. For the two armies will finally clash in a battle to be remembered as the Siege of Nakkiga; a battle so strange and deadly, so wracked with dark enchantment, that it threatens to destroy not just one side but quite possibly all. Trapped inside the mountain as the mortals batter at Nakkiga’s gates, Viyeki the Builder will discover disturbing secrets about his own people, mysteries both present and past, represented by the priceless gem known as The Heart of What Was Lost.
In terms of worldbuilding, I was aware that the format of this book would probably preclude much depth. Surprisingly, Tad Williams nevertheless managed to imbue this one with lots of layers. True, most of the groundwork has been laid out in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. But this one focuses on new players for the most part, so I was pleasantly surprised that The Heart of What Was Lost could pack such a powerful punch as far as worldbuilding is concerned. This is mostly due to the fact that we get a Norn point of view, which was great. The Sithi and the Norn are not your typical elf-like race, and for some reason Williams is the only fantasy author who can bring out the darker nature of the fairy folk in such a fashion. To finally get the opportunity to discover more about the inner workings of the Norn society was doubtless the most fascinating aspect of this novel. As far as geography is concerned, the tale occurs in the far north. It begins on the Frostmarch Road as Duke Isgrimnur's army is pursuing what is left of the Norn troops fleeing back to Nakkiga, where a brutal siege will take place. The duke and his men will soon find out that, cornered with nowhere else to go, the Hikeda'ya will sell their lives dearly. Sadly, this book features the same old map from the original trilogy. Let's hope that The Witchwood Crown will sport a new, more detailed map of Osten Ard.
The characterization was a bit uneven. It was a pleasure to have Duke Isgrimnur back as a POV protagonist. His storyline creates a continuity between The Heart of What Was Lost and Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, so it was nice to have him back. The story takes place a few weeks following the events chronicled in To Green Angel Tower, so the man is the same character we have come to love in the first series. Porto's point of view, however, was often a bit extraneous. I understand that both he and Endri are meant to convey the rank and file's perspective and allow us to witness events through the eyes of someone other than the duke. And yet, as the plot moved forward, I found that Porto's sections occasionally got in the way of the important stuff. Also, as far as striking a balance between the various perspectives, I felt that it might have worked better with only Isgrimnur and Viyeki had been POV protagonists. Speaking of the Builder, his point of view is by far the most interesting, for it offers readers a wealth of information regarding the Norn and Nakkiga. Problem is, although intelligent and talented, Viyeki is a brown-nosing sycophant. And even if he grows a backbone before the end, it's hard to root for him. Especially given that the book features a number of captivating Hideka'ya, chief among them Yaarike, High Magister of the Order of Builders, General Suno'ku, and Akhenabi, Lord of Song. The same goes of Ayaminu, the mysterious Sitha-woman observer sent to accompany the duke's army.
There are a few slow-moving parts here and there, but the pace is never really an issue. Given the length of this one, I expected no less. But it will be interesting to see if Tad Williams has learned from his errors of the past and if he'll keep the rhythm more or less fluid in what will certainly be the doorstopper installments of The Last King of Osten Ard. He proved that he could do so in the Bobby Dollar books, so here's to hoping that he'll manage to dodge the bullet that prevented many a reader from enjoying The Dragonbone Chair and the subsequent volumes of the first trilogy.
As I mentioned earlier, The Heart of What Was Lost is nothing more than a vignette, a brief episode focusing on the Siege of Nakkiga. And though it's a satisfying read, it doesn't capture the imagination the way Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn did. What it does, however, is set the stage perfectly for The Witchwood Crown and its sequels. Viyeki's point of view, especially, unveils so much information about the Hideka'ya factions and their plans of vengeance against the mortals. The Storm King is no more and Queen Utuk'ku has yet to regain consciousness, but it is obvious that the Norn will not go quietly into the night. I can't wait to find out what happens next!
So much so that if George R. R. Martin's The Winds of Winter and Tad Williams' The Witchwood Crown came out on the same day (not going to happen, but just for the sake of argument), right now I'd probably read the latter first.
In the end, The Heart of What Was Lost is the perfect companion book for anyone who loved Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn and the perfect setup book for The Last King of Osten Ard. Read it and try to contain your excitement as we wait for The Witchwood Crown to be published. God knows I can't!
As an aside, I'm wondering if Williams still plans to release A Chronicle in Stone, a collection of short stories set in Osten Ard, now that he is hard at work on the second series. Haven't heard anything about it for years, so I figure that this project has been postponed for the immediate future.