The Dragonbone Chair

The Dragonbone Chair
Tad Williams

I have been in a bit of an epic fantasy mood since a recent Lord of the Rings viewing, a mood not entirely sated by Red Moon and Black Mountain. I confirmed with my blog partner Jose that Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is Tad Williams’ best work (“by a wide margin”), then picked up a copy of the first volume at Goodwill. I remember starting this series back when Williams first published the books, finishing two books before I ran out of fantasy steam. By the time the third volume was published, I had burned out on the genre and switched full time to science fiction. In the ensuing years I forgot almost everything about the unfinished trilogy; I might as well be reading them for the first time.

Things are probably best kicked off with a transcript of a chat I recently had with Jose:
Me: I’ve been reading Tad Williams. He likes to take his time.
Jose: Memory Sorrow and Thorn? Or Otherworld?
Me: The first.
Jose: Where are you?
Me: 1st book, almost half way, though everything I’ve read of his takes a couple hundred to get going.
Jose: The first book is reaaaallly slow.
Me: It’s good, and has moments of cant-put-it-down-ness, but the world building and character intros take forever.
Jose: Okay, 2nd and 3rd books basically are awesome and don’t stop the awesome until the end. 1st book is a slog until Seoman stops being so.. whiny. The book gets a ton better.
Me: He’s a pantywaist.
Jose: He turns into a fairly good main character.
Me: He’s like 14, so I understand and he has ADHD.
Jose: Also he kills a dragon.
Me: Cool.

That basically sums up how I felt about the beginning. Williams has never met a piece of exposition that he didn’t like, but it is at least quality exposition. There is a certain slow inexorability about the books; after a couple of fits and starts, the momentum picks up. The last quarter of the book is a headlong rush and a worthy pay off. Likewise, the main character, Simon, takes awhile to get his crap together. To be fair, you know who else was a pantywaist? Luke Skywalker. I have to cut the protagonists some slack when we’re deep into any sort of coming of age tale. (Why is it that all these stories have to be both coming of age and child of destiny stories? Why can’t it be an old dude of destiny? Or someone growing up who isn’t anything special?) Anyway, Tad Williams and his inertia will be no surprise to jaded readers.

This being fantasy from the 1980s, the Cthulu-esque Tolkien monster has his wriggling tentacles all over the book. It’s not as blatant as some, and Williams elaborates greatly on the basic themes, but the themes are there. Of course, some of these archetypes and plot points long predate Tolkien, but his interpretations have an undue influence that Williams cannot entirely escape. To his credit however, parts of traditional fantasy that don’t always get sufficient explanation are granted time on stage here. The ultimate evil has a reason for being evil, rather than just some random evil wizard. The kingdoms and alliances are logical, as is, to a point, the politics and economy underpinning them. The characters are rich and detailed. Astute readers will still be able to name check tropes and cliches though.

I will withhold further judgment for now, considering that two thirds of the story arc lies yet undiscovered. What magic lurks in the 1400 or so pages before me? Can Simon make the same transformation from tool to butt kicker that Luke does? Will the Olde World and its Magick continue to pass away in the face of Men and their technology? Will the treacherous bad guys die in suitably horrible ways? What about Love? I can guess the answer to these and other questions, but am excited to read about them anyway.

Rating: The first half of the first leg of a crucial Champions League match. Things are just getting started.

8 thoughts on “The Dragonbone Chair

  1. My main issue with the works of Tad Williams is that his editors, whoever they were, should have been more active. Sometimes authors find it hard to cut. In those cases, an editor has to push. There are dozens of pages in each of his novels that contribute very little to plot or character development. Entire chapters are superfluous, aside from atmosphere. Otherland may be the worst of these – in the middle volumes there’s a chunk of at least 100-150 pages of trippy travelogue that doesn’t advance things at all. Now, on the plus side, he’s a tremendous storyteller with a great imagination, someone who can sweep readers along. As Nick Cave said: “Prolix! Prolix! I call prolix! Nothing a pair of scissors won’t fix…” I haven’t read anything by him in the last few years though, nothing after War of the Flowers, so maybe things have improved by then.

    Goodness, look at me complaining about someone being prolix and then leaving half an essay in a comment box.:/

    • Half essays welcome here! I tend to agree with you. In a way, I find Tad Williams to be the Peter F. Hamilton of fantasy, though I haven’t read enough of either to be really incisive there. He could definitely tighten up Dragonbone Chair, though I guess you could argue that he’s building up backstory and adding depth (or something). I tend towards demanding efficiency of prose when I read, so I think your comments are spot on.

  2. 1400 pages is a loooong time to be withholding judgement. Go on, let that knee jerk wildly and tell us what you really think thus far.

    That said, Amazon has just informed me this volume alone close to 1000 pages. I think it’d be fair to draw some conclusions based on that. If you’re knee jerked that slowly in real life your doctor would probably be recommending a few more expensive tests as well😉 The crucial question is whether this leg was home or away for Mr Williams. 0-0 at home’s a decent enough result, but away goals and all that…

    P.S. I’ve never yet met a bildungsroman protagonist I didn’t want to punch squarely in the face. Comes with the territory, I guess.

      • Well, I’d say he took the away leg 1-0. In theory, it should all be downhill from here on out, what with the heavy world building and character backstory done. I am reminded of a quote from The Great Muppet Caper: “Why are you telling me this?” “It’s plot exposition. It has to go somewhere.”
        And yes, all these young children of destiny are beastly. I was much better behaved.

  3. It’s been years since I read this series and my man is currently re-reading the first book. I think that if you are a slow reader, than this series might be torture for you. But if you are a fast reader, it can be pretty good epic fantasy.

  4. I hadn’t really considered reading Tad Williams (in large part because of book size) until watching his recent interview on Sword and Laser. He was so passionate about story telling that I determined that at some point I will be taking the plunge. The Dragonbone Chair is the one that appeals most to me so I’m happy to read this review. Knowing that it works past its early issues and ends up being a worthwhile trilogy gives me more cause to give it a try.

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