Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn
After getting repeatedly sidetracked, it is time to return to this mountainous bit of fantasy that I finished some time back. As promised in an earlier update, this post is a broader look at the entire trilogy, highlighting bits and pieces that I found interesting. It is not a proper review, but a collection of thoughts and reactions that built up in my overcrowded brain during the almost 3000 pages of story. I will mark spoiler territory accordingly, though we have probably passed the statute of limitations on that sort of thing. In fact, I may be the last SFF fan over 25 to read this.
Regardless, I should probably get review-esque language out of the way first. Lest anyone think that I didn’t like the series or am being overly critical, I will say first off that I enjoyed the books a great deal. I don’t believe I have read a better rendition of traditional epic fantasy. (Tolkien doesn’t count, because his is the original. Instead I am making comparisons to other post-LOTR high fantasy.) Williams hits all the right notes, supplies all the necessary heroes and villains, threatens the world in suitable fashion, and brings it all home at the end with good-hearted triumph. There is nothing subversive or ironic here, just young heroes coming of age, spunky princesses, unspeakable evil, and varying degrees of heroism. Not always my thing, but it clears the palate every once in a while.
Casually scouring the internet for reactions to this trilogy, I was surprised at how polarized the opinions are. I’m not sure I read anything that said, “This book is alright.” Instead, it was “THIS IS THE BEST FANTASY EVER YO!” or “holy crap, that was mind numbing and ponderous.” (Here, for example, or here.) It wasn’t usually the length that put people off, fantasy readers being who they are, but the pace. Not everyone, it seems, is willing to mosey with Tad. I guess I’m the opposite: long stuff is not generally my bag, but after a couple years’ worth of poly sci reading, slow is not an issue. (Recent reviews of, say, Kim Stanley Robinson ought to back up my assertions about slow moving stuff.) These biases laid out, it should be no surprise that I take some issue with the length of the whole thing (in particular the decision to smash what should have been volumes three and four together), but am content to mosey.
I’m willing to stay with an author for 3000 pages if (s)he has something to say that justifies the investment. For the most part, Williams keeps his end of the bargain. There are a few side stories that could be cut without any loss to the text (Rachel’s tale and the rescue in the Wran are two quick examples), but nothing is egregiously superfluous. Indeed, Williams manages to tie everything together in the end, without leaving any of a plethora of plot strands dangling. I was genuinely surprised at this and it demonstrates considerable narrative skill. Not everyone could juggle so much. The pace for me was a non-issue, though I was certainly aware of it. These books don’t follow the typical, Hollywood-style three act structure, with pace and tension increasing exponentially each page. It is more of a freight train experience, starting slowly and reaching cruising velocity relatively early on. Like the train though, there is a hidden inertia at work – 60 mph may not seem all that fast until one steps in front of 100 fully loaded boxcars moving at speed. Thus goes the trilogy, steadily barreling along without ever punching the afterburners. I should note that the only other Willams I have read, The War of the Flowers, moved in a similar way.
My earlier posts, indeed the whole reason I picked this set up in the first place, talked a bit about the Tolkien connection. I’ve mentioned some of these before, but the complete list of Tolkien references that I found includes: Eowyn, Gollum (twice), the Nazgul, Elves (of course), Dwarves (to a point), Helm’s Deep, Saruman’s factory, soul-sucking artifacts of power, the Paths of the Dead, and Sauron. More interesting is the way Williams transforms most of Europe into Osten Ard. Starting in the far north, we come across Vikings, Celts, the kingdom of Prester John, Rome, and at least one Italian city-state. The Catholic Church is in full effect as well, though the author is coy on how all the gods fit together. I have no idea if he chose this arrangement as a comment or critique of modern fantasy, but it is fun to think about.
I should mention that one crucial character set, Simon and Dr. Morgenes, owes much more to Star Wars than LOTR. Of course, Star Wars borrows heavily from Joseph Campbell, which is ultimately what Williams is mining, but Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan are the first to float up from my crowded subconscious. Simon in particular reminds me very much of Luke, though it takes Simon a lot longer to pull his head out. (Luke is awesome by Return of the Jedi; Simon is still saying stupid things at the end of the trilogy.) Simon finally grows into his destiny at the end, when the not-so-surprising twist hits, but this is to be expected. He mostly just needed to get laid, I think.
While we’re talking about Simon, we should probably glance at the end. This paragraph will contain massive spoilers. In looking at reactions to the trilogy, opinions about the ending are second only to the pace for divergence and controversy. The trick Williams plays with the swords is clever and unexpected, though it unnecessarily complicates the plot in ways that over-clever bad guys often do. What I really didn’t see coming was the sudden resolution that seemed all too easy. Pyrates, of course, got the horrible end that was telegraphed from early, early in the book, but the Storm King, unbreakable power and all, was undone by the simplest of means. (There was also the matter of a magical backstabbing and an arrow in the heart, but those were sideshows.) I can see what Williams is trying to get at, and I don’t think that this was some sort of deus ex machina, but Simon winning by refusing to hate (and Camaris too, for that matter) was a bit pat. This followed by, holy cow, Simon being the lost descendant of royalty. That said, points to the author for trying something different.
Spoilers are over. My last comment on the whole thing is a bit more flippant, but possibly relevant. Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn really needs to be subtitled A Guide to the Tunnels of Osten Ard. I don’t know why, but people in this series just can’t stop themselves from rooting around underground. The reader can’t spit without hitting somebody digging through tombs, lost in tunnels, exploring underground cities, eating slithering creatures and moss because there is no buffet in the dungeon, and more. With all the underground secret passageways, caves, and cities, it’s a miracle that the entire continent doesn’t collapse, like those sinkholes in Florida that randomly swallow houses. By book three I was hoping for either an automap feature to save the poor characters the trouble, or a grue to eat them all.
These comments don’t magically combine in the final paragraph to form any sort of profound statement about either the books themselves or the genre in particular. In many ways, the series is its own statement on the art of high fantasy, with Williams presenting his version of the ultimate epic. Quibbles about pacing and excessive spelunking aside, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is awfully close to the platonic ideal. I feel as though I can go the rest of my life without reading another epic fantasy series, since it’s all likely to be downhill from here. (I probably will read another, and I doubt that everything, without exception, is worse, but one can swear off food after eating too much as well.) Maybe though, I will decide to read the shorter follow-ups to the books. Maybe Williams will find another story to tell and return to Osten Ard. Simon and crew will no doubt be patiently waiting for him.
Rating: The 1994 World Cup final between Brazil and Italy. Straight ahead, by the numbers stuff, but executed at the highest possible level. And very long.