The Witchwood Crown


If you have read my review of The Heart of What Was Lost, you probably recall just how great it was for me to finally return to the world of Osten Ard. I read To Green Angel Tower when it originally came out, so I've been waiting for a very long to discover what happens next. Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn turned out to be a seminal work of fantasy, one of the very best of its era. Like countless Tad Williams fans, I couldn't wait to sink my teeth into The Witchwood Crown.

In the end, The Heart of What Was Lost was the perfect companion book for anyone who loved Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, as well as the perfect setup book for The Last King of Osten Ard trilogy. Still, the novel was nothing more than a vignette, a brief episode focusing on the Siege of Nakkiga. The Witchwood Crown takes place three decades later and is the opening chapter in a brand new series featuring protagonists that we have learned to love and a huge cast of new characters. Understandably, expectations are extremely high for this new trilogy. Given how long it took for the author to finally elect to write this sequel, we could expect nothing less. Not since the Dune sequels were announced has a new SFF series been so eagerly anticipated.

Lofty expectations can be tricky things, however. And considering how beloved Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn has continued to be over the years, let's just say that The Last King of Osten Ard has very big shoes to fill. If you've been hanging around these parts for a while, you should know by now that I've always been a big Tad Williams fan. Regardless of the shortcomings that certain readers find so annoying and/or off-putting, I've always managed to overlook them and enjoy Williams' books/series. I mean, I'm aware of these perceived weaknesses, but Tad Williams has always found a way to scratch my itch, no matter if it's epic fantasy, science fiction, urban fantasy, or everything else in between. I was so excited about The Witchwood Crown that I once claimed that if George R. R. Martin's The Winds of Winter and Williams' latest came out on the same day (not going to happen, of course, but just for the sake of argument), I'd probably read the latter first.

Thanks to the author, his wife Deborah, and the good folks at Daw Books, I was one of the first reviewers to receive an advance reading copy. I wanted to get a review up as soon as possible, so I started reading it right away. By the second evening, I knew something was wrong. Quite wrong. I wasn't feeling it. At all. This book was a veritable chore to go through. The slog of slogs. I persevered, hoping that it would get better as the story progressed. Alas, to no avail. I actually put the novel down twice, each time for a couple of weeks, because I didn't want the first review online to be luke-warm at best. Had it been written by anyone but Tad Williams, I would have stopped reading before reaching the halfway point. Yet the author has wowed me so often in the past that I simply couldn't quit. Eventually, I did pick it up again and reached the end. And it does get a little better. But the sad truth remains that, in my humble opinion (and that's worth what it's worth) The Witchwood Crown is Tad Williams' weakest work to date. In many ways, it is to the author what Crossroads of Twilight was to Robert Jordan. And the Jordan may have been better. I kid you not. . .

Here's the blurb:

The Dragonbone Chair, the first volume of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, was published in hardcover in October, 1988, launching the series that was to become one of the seminal works of modern epic fantasy. Many of today’s top-selling fantasy authors, from Patrick Rothfuss to George R. R. Martin to Christopher Paolini credit Tad with being the inspiration for their own series.

Now, twenty-four years after the conclusion of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, Tad returns to his beloved universe and characters with The Witchwood Crown, the first novel in the long-awaited sequel trilogy, The Last King of Osten Ard.

Thirty years have passed since the events of the earlier novels, and the world has reached a critical turning point once again. The realm is threatened by divisive forces, even as old allies are lost, and others are lured down darker paths. Perhaps most terrifying of all, the Norns—the long-vanquished elvish foe—are stirring once again, preparing to reclaim the mortal-ruled lands that once were theirs…

Not surprisingly, the worldbuilding is head and shoulders above what is the norm in today's speculative fiction market. In that regard, The Witchwood Crown showcases a Tad Williams writing at the top of his game. Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn was vast in scope and vision and this new series builds on storylines that already echoed with depth. Several new dimensions are added to what has always been a multilayered work of fiction, and on this front at least the first volume of The Last King of Osten Ard delivers. The Sithi and the Norns 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 chance to discover more about the inner workings of the Norn society was undoubtedly the most fascinating aspect of The Heart of What Was Lost. Thirty years later, the plans that were put in motion in the heart of Nakkiga are bearing fruit and we learn even more about them. And now that Queen Utuk'ku has awakened, the world is about to find out that the Hikeda'ya are not the vanquished foe so many people believed them to be. Those hoping to find out more about the Sithi are bound to be disappointed. Sadly, we see very little of them, and most of the scenes involving the Sithi occur near the very end of the book. As far as geography is concerned, the tale occurs in various locales all over Osten Ard. Indeed, certain plotlines take place in the far north, in Nakkiga, Rimmersgard, the Frostmarch, and Hernystir. Others occur in Erkynland, mostly focusing on the Hayholt. Nabban and the Thrithing lands are also the stage for what appear to be major storylines. Finally, the Aldheorte forest is another locale we return to. As you can see, The Witchwood Crown is a far-reaching novel that covers a lot of ground, which is something that doesn't necessarily always work in the book's favor.

One of the principal shortcomings of this book is the decidedly weak political intrigue. As I mentioned in my review of Shadowmarch way back when, Tad Williams excels in many different aspects when it comes to writing novels, but politicking is definitely not one of them. This was true then, and sadly it's true now. Instead of playing to his strengths, likely to have more appeal to fans of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire and other politically-involved fantasy series, Williams put political intrigue at the heart of a number of important plot threads. Which, due to the clumsiness of such intrigues, puts the Hernystir, the Nabban, and the Thrithing plotlines on very shaky ground. Add to that the fact that Simon makes for a particularly inept and occasionally dumb High King who has surrounded himself with not necessarily the brightest of people at court, and you have an incompetent government so totally unprepared to deal with any sort of crisis that it is second only to the Donald Trump administration in that regard. All in all, since a large part of the novel hinges precisely on political intrigue, it can be quite a setback at times. As I've said before, not everyone can be a politicking master like Martin, Katherine Kurtz, or Jacqueline Carey. Tad Williams took quite a risk when he chose to go down that path. Time will tell if he can pull it off. But based on The Witchwood Crown, it will be an uphill battle and the odds are stacked against him.

The novel's biggest flaw is the characterization, which is habitually one of the aspects in which Williams truly shines. This facet leaves a lot to be desired. Moreover, The Witchwood Crown is a veritable mess of points of view. Sometimes, less is more. I'm convinced that this book would have benefited from a lesser number of perspectives. Do you recall how George R. R. Martin took some heat when A Feast For Crows was released due to the fact that many readers opined that there were simply too many POV protagonists in the series? And then A Dance With Dragons added even more. Well, I've lost track of exactly how many perspectives there are, but The Witchwood Crown features about as many points of view as GRRM's A Song of Ice and Fire taken as a whole. And that is way too much for a single novel. It can be confusing, at times downright boring, and it bogs down the narrative with pointless scenes that go nowhere. Why Tad Williams elected to introduce readers to so many disparate characters and give them their own POV in the very first volume of the series, I'll never know. But it does kill momentum, time and time again, as you skip from an interesting plotline to an unnecessary conversation or info-dump that brings little or nothing to the tale. Introducing the cast is all well and good. But like Martin and other SFF authors, Williams could have waited and shared their perspectives in subsequent installments. As things stand, there are way too many cooks in the kitchen. This precludes any kind of tight focus on any of the storylines, and in the long run this hurts the book in a myriad of ways.

The Witchwood Crown also suffers from a manifestly poor cast. Simon and Miriamele are only shadows of who they once were in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. Middle age has enfeebled and made them fearful. Especially Miriamele, which was such a strong female lead in the first series, has become a somewhat weak woman who's terrified if Simon has a bad dream. How such a couple with a deficient court held on to power for so long defies comprehension. How they could remain so unaware of what goes on in and around their kingdom was definitely shocking. Prince Morgan, heir to the High Throne, is another great disappointment. I'm acutely aware that Williams is setting him up as a complete dumbass so that we can experience his transformation and root for him when he finally has his coming-of-age moment. Problem is, as the heir, Morgan should have been exposed to life at court and all that it encompasses from a young age. Simon and Miriamele, who go on and on and on about how much of a disappointment the youth turned out to, do absolutely nothing to remedy the situation. POV protagonists include familiar faces like Tiamak, Eolair, Viyeki (now High Magister of the Order of the Builders), and Pasevalles. There are plenty of newcomers, chief among them Tzoja, mortal slave wife to Viyeki, their daughter Nezeru (now one of the Queen's Talons), Jarnulf the White Hand (by far the most interesting character of the bunch), Unver of the Thrithring-folks, and Jesa (nurse to Duke Saluceris of Nabban's infant daughter). Simply put, that's just too many POVs. Another thing that might irk some readers is that a lot of female characters, at least as far as this novel is concerned, are somewhat vapid dead-ends.

Tad Williams is a notorious slow starter. Always has been and probably always will be. All of his series have suffered from long bouts of sluggish rhythm, and The Witchwood Crown could well be his slowest-paced work to date. I kept wondering when the tale would finally kick into high gear, yet the vast number of points of view prevented that from ever taking place. With the Bobby Dollar books, Williams proved that he could keep the rhythm more or less fluid. Urban fantasy is a different genre, but I was hoping that he had learned from his past errors and would apply those lessons when pacing the new series. Unfortunately, that wasn't meant to be. Those who were frustrated by the snail's pace of novels like The Dragonbone Chair will likely find little to love about this new book. It is a tedious read, every step of the way.

There are some good scenes and storylines, mind you. And yet, it's a chore to get through to them because very little actually happens in most chapters and all the good stuff is buried so deeply under extraneous and superfluous scenes that it robs them of most of the desired impact. I've always been a big fan, but I've never had such a hard time reading anything by Tad Williams. Honestly, so many sequences could have been truncated or excised altogether. A trimmed down version of The Witchwood Crown, let's say minus 150 pages or so, would probably have been a much better read.

Another problem is that The Witchwood Crown is little more than a vast introduction to an even bigger and more complex tale. As such, it introduces a panoply of characters, concepts, and plot threads. Yet it offers very little in terms of resolution. Though they were part of a trilogy, I always felt that all three installments that comprised Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn stood well on their own. Not so for the first volume of The Last King of Osten Ard. I expected something gripping and exciting to close the show. After all, a review from someone involved in the production of The Witchwood Crown promised a showdown as awesome as the grand finale of George R. R. Martin's A Storm of Swords. Hence, I kept hoping, turning those pages, slogging through more and more lackluster scenes that go nowhere, waiting for that big payoff at the end. Only to reach the final sentence and shake my head in wonder and disappointment. There is absolutely no showdown. No big payoff. I'm so sad that this turned out to be such an underwhelming novel. This was supposed to be the BIG return to Osten Ard, one of the fantasy highlights of 2017. Instead, it was a work I could barely finish. True, things do pick up in the last hundred pages or so. But it's a case of too little, too late.

In a recent interview, Tad Williams mentioned that he had never worked on something as intricately plotted as The Last King of Osten Ard. I wonder if that robbed The Witchwood Crown of some of the magic that permeated past Tad Williams works. Detractors have often complained that the author doesn't always seem to know where he's going with his storylines/characters, that he makes everything up as he goes along, etc. But there was a magic to that and Williams always came out on top in the end. I wonder if having so many details plotted out that far in advance has robbed Williams of the freedom that allowed him to follow his muse the way he used to do. Perhaps this is the reason why his latest novel failed to capture my imagination the way Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn or the Otherland series grabbed hold of me and never let go?

One can only hope that the second volume, Empire of Grass, will be a return to form for the author.

The final verdict: 5.5/10

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5 commentaires:

Anonymous said...

Pretty dissapointing. Loved "Memory, Sorrow and Thorn", and i thought "The Heart of What Was Lost" was a good epilouge. Sounds like this book will just tarnish the entire thing. Simon being a bad king goes against all the build up in the previous books. Think i will skip this for now, canseling my pre-order.

DontDriveAngry said...

Wow. Disappointing review. I will still read this, and for this reason: Williams has a solid track record of having definite stories planned and plotted out over multiple volumes. This is a contrast to other series that either got bloated and/or lost their way in the telling or were not nearly as plotted out as they'd initially seemed and fizzled out as the author made the story up as he went, after they'd already started. As a result, despite the lackluster review, I have a little bit of faith, probably more than I do in any other author, that Williams probably got a little overextended in his setting-up of the pieces, so to speak, but that the subsequent volumes will have a resolution that is already planned out. Granted, you address this in acknowledging that the MST books had some standalone value, and I admit, that it is often a bit presumptuous for an author to demand a reader commit to multiple volumes to read the whole story, but in this case, Williams' has at least shown his ability to make good on that promise.

JC said...

Wow, it's a deflating review to say the least. It sounds like their was too much over plotting in this novel, and as you pointed out Williams is indeed a slow starter with series.

However, your review leaves cause for concern. I remember reading your review of A Memory of Light, and you were one of the few to nail it right on and not view the book through rose colored glasses.

Still, I'd like to give Williams the benefit of the doubt and hope the last two books in the series turn it around. Thanks for posting your review, and keep up the great work!

Linnease said...

I meant to reply to you in the thread on the asoiaf forum but for some reason I can't log in.Anyway,having read the book I agree with your review,it's an incredibly frustrating read since storylines lack resolution and we never really get answers to anything.I'm also unsure of the authors ability or willingness to engage in some of the themes he brings up in regard to his female carachters such as rape and slavery.It feels like they would have needed some more space in the narrative to be convincing.As it is we get chapter of unpleasant and dull young men instead.Hopefully the book will work better with the next two books.

Cameron Pearce said...

Having read the book, this review seems particularly subjective. I think people should read it themselfs, because I had a blast and categorically disagree with the OP.