Empire of Grass

If you've been hanging out in these parts for a while, then you know that I've always been a big Tad Williams fan. Regardless of the shortcomings that certain readers find so annoying and/or off-putting about the author, I've always managed to overlook them and enjoy Williams' books/series. Seriously, I'm aware of these perceived weaknesses, but 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. Having read To Green Angel Tower when it originally came out, I'd been waiting for a very long time to find out 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 readers, I couldn't wait to sink my teeth into The Witchwood Crown.

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. Understandably, expectations were 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.

Needless to say, The Witchwood Crown had big shoes to fill. And just a few chapters into the book, I realized that something was wrong. It was a veritable chore to go through. The slog of slogs, no doubt about it. And although it did get a little better toward the end, in my humble opinion The Witchwood Crown was by far Williams' weakest work to date. Which did not bode well for subsequent installments.

Early reviews opined that Empire of Grass was better than its predecessor. Keeping my fingers crossed that it was the case, I jumped into it with renewed enthusiasm. Unfortunately, my excitement was short-lived and it soon dawned upon me that the novel suffered from the same shortcomings that sunk The Witchwood Crown. Ultimately, it's more of the same for the most part, with very little improvement to speak of. There is no way to sugarcoat the fact that Empire of Grass was another disappointing read.

Here's the blurb:

Set in Williams' New York Times bestselling fantasy world, the second book of The Last King of Osten Ard returns to the trials of King Simon and Queen Miriamele as threats to their kingdom loom...

The kingdoms of Osten Ard have been at peace for decades, but now, the threat of a new war grows to nightmarish proportions.

Simon and Miriamele, royal husband and wife, face danger from every side. Their allies in Hernystir have made a pact with the dreadful Queen of the Norns to allow her armies to cross into mortal lands. The ancient, powerful nation of Nabban is on the verge of bloody civil war, and the fierce nomads of the Thrithings grasslands have begun to mobilize, united by superstitious fervor and their age-old hatred of the city-dwellers. But as the countries and peoples of the High Ward bicker among themselves, battle, bloodshed, and dark magics threaten to pull civilizations to pieces. And over it all looms the mystery of the Witchwood Crown, the deadly puzzle that Simon, Miriamele, and their allies must solve if they wish to survive.

But as the kingdoms of Osten Ard are torn apart by fear and greed, a few individuals will fight for their own lives and destinies—not yet aware that the survival of everything depends on them.

As is the author's wont, the superior worldbuilding really shines. In that regard at least, Empire of Grass shows 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 the first two volumes of The Last King of Osten Ard delivered. As I keep saying, 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. Three decades down the line, the plans that were put in motion in the heart of Nakkiga are now bearing fruit and we learn even more about them. Queen Utuk'ku has awakened and 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 will be pleased to learn that we actually discover more about them in this sequel. Tantalizing hints insinuate that the Garden was another planet and that the Norns, the Sithi and the Tinukeda'ya are the descendants of an alien race that reached Osten Ard via space ships or other means of transportation. It will be interesting to see if this is truly the case or not in the final installment.

Geographically speaking, like its predecessor Empire of Grass takes place in various locales all over Osten Ard. Nabban and the Thrithing lands are the stage for what became major storylines. The same can be said of the Aldheorte forest. As you can see, this second volume is another far-reaching novel that covers a lot of ground. And once again, this is something that doesn't necessarily always work in the book's favor. Indeed, the tale is hitting many of the locales and events from Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, often for little or no reason plot-wise, or for reasons that feel a little contrived.

As was the case with the first volume, one of the most important shortcomings of Empire of Grass is the decidedly weak political intrigue. As I mentioned before, 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 remains true now. Instead of playing to his strengths in The Witchwood Crown and this new sequel, 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 major plot threads. Which, due to the clumsiness in execution of such intrigues, put the Hernystir, the Nabban, and the Thrithing plotlines on very shaky ground. Add to that the fact that Simon and Miri continue to make for particularly inept and occasionally dumb rulers who have surrounded themselves 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. Ultimately, since a large part of Empire of Grass 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. In my last review, I opined that time would tell if he could pull it off. But based on The Witchwood Crown, it would be an uphill battle and the odds were stacked against him. It's now evident that Williams has built a fragile house of cards with political intrigue as its foundation. Which means that the whole thing can come crashing down at any time.

One more, the novel's biggest flaw is the characterization, which is habitually one of the aspects in which Williams truly shines. As was the case with The Witchwood Crown, this second volume is a veritable mess of points of view. I remain convinced that this book would have benefited from a lesser number of perspectives. I lost track of exactly how many POVs there were in the first installment and Empire of Grass features even more of them. While some storylines are engaging, at times some perspectives are downright boring, which 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, I'll never know. But it continues to kill momentum as you skip from an interesting sequence to an unnecessary conversation or info-dump that brings little or nothing to the tale. Plotlines featuring Tiamak, Binabik, Qina, Eolair, Cuff, Vorzheva, Jesa, and Princess Lillia in particular often make you want to throw the novel across the room. This poor characterization precludes any kind of tight focus on any of the storylines, and in the long run it once again hurts this sequel in a myriad of ways.

Like The Witchwood Crown, Williams' latest also suffers from a manifestly poor cast. Simon and Miriamele continue to be only shadows of who they once were in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. Middle age has enfeebled and made them fearful. Especially Miriamele, who was such a strong female lead in the first series. She's a little better in Empire of Grass, yet the Nabban storyline shows just how far she has fallen. 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 when the writing is on the wall, so to speak, remains shocking. Prince Morgan, heir to the High Throne, continues to be a great disappointment. Yes, I know the author 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, it appears that he will not bloom any time soon. Until the second portion of Empire of Grass, when his situation changes and things finally get interesting (though Morgan himself remains an idiot), I came to dread any chapter featuring him. POV protagonists include all the familiar faces from The Witchwood Crown, as well as a number of new ones. Again, that's just too many POVs. And even the most engrossing and thrilling plotlines from the first installment, such as those of Viyeki, Nezeru, or Jarnulf, fail to captivate in similar fashion this time around.

One would have thought that with most of the groundwork already laid out, Empire of Grass would have been a more fluid read. Alas, the pace is atrocious for the better part of the novel. It is a tedious read, every step of the way. Another slog of slogs. The mess of perspectives doesn't help, true. Nor does the info-dumps or all the extraneous stuff that bogs down the narrative in many a chapter. Did we really need the full back stories of both Tzoja and Vorzheva? The pointless bantering scenes featuring Binabik, his wife, his daughter, and Little Snenneq? The 3-year-old princess' point of view? Jessa worrying about everything in every scene she appears in? Simon, acting like a beffudled old man who can't even tie his own shoes and a monarch completely clueless of what goes on at his court? Yada yada yada. A good 150 pages could probably have been excised without the plot losing anything important. All Tad Williams novels are overwritten to some extent, but these last two have been quite problematic in that regard. Everything moves at a snail's pace, with good and exciting sequences few and far between. There are some compelling scenes and storylines, no doubt about it. 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 superfluous scenes that it robs them of most of the desired impact. As I said, I've always been a big fan, but I've never had such a hard time reading anything by Tad Williams.

The Witchwood Crown turned out to be little more than a vast introduction to an even bigger and more complex tale. As such, it introduced a panoply of characters, concepts, and plot threads, but it offered very little in terms of resolution. Given the way Empire of Grass was going, I expected something gripping and exciting to close the show. It looked as though Williams had a grand finale in store for his readers and the rhythm picks up in the final portion of the book. Alas, it was not to be. Once more, I reached the last page and could only shake my head in disappointment. There is no showdown. No big payoff. No resolution of any sort. Every single plotline ends in a cliffhanger. I'm so sad that this turned out to be another underwhelming novel.

Disappointing. . .

The final verdict: 6/10

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