Into the Narrowdark

You should know by now that I've always been a big Tad Williams fan. Regardless of the man's shortcomings that some people find so off-putting, I've always managed to overlook them and enjoy Williams' books/series. Having read To Green Angel Tower when it originally came out, like many fans I'd been waiting for a very long time to find out what happens next. Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn ended up being a seminal work of fantasy, one that many consider one of the very best of its era. Like countless readers around the world, I couldn't wait to sink my teeth into The Witchwood Crown when it was published a few years back.

Understandably, expectations were quite high for this new series. Considering how long it took for the author to finally elect to write this sequel, we could expect nothing less. It goes without saying that The Witchwood Crown had very big shoes to fill. Too big, perhaps? Could our expectations be met? Just a few chapters into the book, I realized that something was wrong. It was a slog to go through. For some reason, Williams had completely failed to recapture the magic of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. And though it did get a little better toward the end, in my humble opinion The Witchwood Crown was by far Williams' weakest work to date.

Based on early reviews which claimed that Empire of Grass was better than its predecessor, I jumped into the second installment with renewed enthusiasm. Sadly, my excitement proved to be short-lived and I soon realized that the novel suffered from the same flaws that sunk The Witchwood Crown. It was more of the same for the most part, with very little improvement to speak of. Once more, I reached the last page and could only shake my head in disappointment. There was no showdown. No big payoff. No resolution of any sort. Almost no character development. Every single plotline ended in a cliffhanger. I was so sad that Empire of Grass turned out to be another underwhelming read.

Could Into the Narrowdark somehow save this new series? I was doubtful, the more so when it was announced, to no one's surprise, that the final volume would have to be split in two. Indeed, Into the Narrowdark is just the first half of what was meant to be a novel and it reads like the first half of a complete novel. Hence, there is no saving grace, nothing which allows The Last King of Osten Ard to level up. While some storylines finally move forward a little more, most of them continue to stagnate or go nowhere.

Here's the blurb:

The New York Times bestselling world of Osten Ard returns in the third Last King of Osten Ard novel, as threats to the kingdom loom...

The High Throne of Erkynland is tottering, its royal family divided and diminished. Queen Miriamele has been caught up in a brutal rebellion in the south and thought to have died in a fiery attack. Her grandson Morgan, heir to the throne, has been captured by one of Utuk’ku’s soldiers in the ruins of an abandoned city. Miriamele’s husband, King Simon, is overwhelmed by grief and hopelessness, unaware that many of these terrible things have been caused by Pasevalles, a murderous traitor inside Simon’s own court at the Hayholt.

Meanwhile, a deadly army of Norns led by the ageless, vengeful Queen Utuk’ku, has swept into Erkynland and thrown down the fortress of Naglimund, slaughtering the inhabitants and digging up the ancient grave of Ruyan the Navigator. Utuk’ku plans to use the Navigator’s fabled armor to call up the spirit of Hakatri, the evil Storm King’s brother.

Even the Sithi, fairy-kin to the Norns, are helpless to stop Utuk’ku’s triumph as her armies simultaneously march on the Hayholt and force their way into the forbidden, ogre-guarded valley of Tanakirú—the Narrowdark—where a secret waits that might bring Simon’s people and their Sithi allies salvation—or doom.

Once again, the superior worldbuilding really shines. As was the case with the previous two volumes, in that regard Into the Narrowdark shows a Tad Williams still writing at the top of his game. As mentioned in my past reviews, 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 all three installments of The Last King of Osten Ard have delivered. To finally get the chance to discover more about the inner workings of the Norn society continues to be the most fascinating aspect of this new series. 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. More tantalizing hints insinuate that the Garden could have been 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. There might even be a robot in this one!

Geographically speaking, like its predecessors Into the Narrowdark continues to take place in various locales all over Osten Ard. It is another sprawling novel that covers a lot of ground. And ultimately, this is something that doesn't always work in the book's favor. Once more, Into the Narrowdark revisits many of the locales and events from Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, too often for little or no reason plot-wise, or for reasons that feel a little too contrived for my taste.

As was the case with the previous two volumes, as well as the Shadowmarch series, one of the most important shortcomings of this book remains 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, probably to have more appeal to fans of George R. R. Martin's immensely popular 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 to say the least. 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 a recipe for disaster. In the end, since a large part of this new series hinges precisely on political intrigue, Williams continues to walk on very thin ice.

Yet what remains the novel's biggest flaw is the characterization. Which, with worldbuilding, is habitually one of the aspects in which Williams truly shines. Into the Narrowdark is another mess of points of view. I remain convinced that this series would have benefited from a lesser number of perspectives. I lost track of exactly how many POVs there were in the first two installments and it felt as though this one features even more of them. While a number storylines can be 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, Jesa, and Princess Lillia in particular often make you want to throw the novel across the room. Once again, this poor characterization precludes any kind of tight focus on any of the storylines, and in the long run it once again hurts this book in a myriad of ways.

As far as the rhythm is concerned, the pace is atrocious for the better part of the novel. Into the Narrowdark is another tedious read. 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. A good chunk of pages could have been excised without the plot losing anything important. All Tad Williams novels are overwritten to some extent, but these last three 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, true. 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. The Miriamele plotline is the perfect example of that.

The end draws near, which is the only positive thing I can say about The Last King of Osten Ard. I'm not sure I care about what happens to any of the characters at this point. The only thing that keeps me going are the possible revelations about the Garden, the Sithi, and the Norns. While Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn will always hold a special place in my heart, I just want this one to end so I can be done with it.

Another major disappointment. . .

The final verdct: 6.5/10.

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2 commentaires:

DontDriveAngry said...

Did you read Brothers of the Wind? For as much as I've enjoyed his longer epic fantasy, Williams really did a really great job with the shorter novella format with both The Heart of What Was Lost & Brothers of the Wind and those are two of TW's most compelling stories of Osten Ard. Brothers of the Wind provided a LOT of depth to what were previously nameless/faceless enemies and it provided some background to Into the Narrowdark that helped a lot. Definitely worth your time.

Patrick said...

Good to know!

I have it, but I haven't read it yet. I did enjoy THoWWL, so maybe I'll like this one. =)