Friday, November 9, 2012

Memory, Sorrow and Thorn by Tad Williams


First published in 1988 by the master of epic fantasy, Tad Williams, the watershed series Memory, Sorrow and Thorn begins with The Dragon Bone Chair. Just like the most enduring of marriages, this tale of three great and dangerous swords begins a bit slowly, but once you are into it, these books are sheer magic.

The main protagonist is Simon, a fourteen-year-old kitchen boy and servant in the great castle Hayholt. He is not really very enthusiastic in carrying out his duties as a kitchen-drudge in the last days of the long reign of King John Presbyter. However, he is happy when he finds himself apprenticed to Doctor Morgenes, the castle's healer and wizard. Simon alternates his time between his chores as a drudge and learning to read and write, taught by the good doctor. Upon the death of the great King John, his son Elias, whom many say is a pawn of the evil cleric Pryrates, becomes king.

Soon after he takes the throne, King Elias' brother Josua, whom Elias hates, vanishes and no one is sure if he went voluntarily or was murdered. Elias is blinded by his desire for power. He creates a pact with the undead Sithi ruler, the Storm King, who plots to regain his lost realm through a pact with one of human royal blood.

Simon accidentally stumbles into the castle dungeons and discovers that Prince Josua is being held captive. He and Morgenes conspire to rescue the prince. Simon and Morgenes are successful, and Josua escapes, but Elias' soldiers, led by Pryrates, storm Morgenes' office, and Morgenes is murdered by a dark magic. Terrified and confused, Simon is able to flee the castle through a secret passage at the back of the doctor's office. With only with his mentor's biography of the good King John for companionship, Simon is lost and despondent.

In the process of escaping the Hayholt, Simon witnesses Pryrates and Elias performing an evil ritual with some strange white demons.

Simon rescues a member of the Sithi from a trap, and receives a white arrow as a token. At the same time he is befriended by a troll, Binnabik, who travels with Simon to Naglimund where they hope he will find safety. While traveling they save a servant girl and her sister from wild dogs, and meet a witch who helps them escape the soldiers who are pursuing them.

Upon arriving at Naglimund Simon discovers that the serving girl whom they saved is actually Miriamele, the only child of King Elias. She has run away to join her uncle Josua.

Simon finds himself on a quest to recover the magical blade, Thorn which once belonged to the greatest knight in their history. In the process, he runs into the Sithi Prince that he had rescued from the trap, and Jiriki joins Simon in his quest.

The changes that Simon and Miriamele go through as they leave their childhood behind are both tragic and amazing. The ways they react to and are formed by the pressures they are under, and the strengths they both have make this series one of the most compelling character studies I’ve read.

There is a large cast of characters, but I found it easy to keep them straight because they are drawn with attention to their individual personalities. Each character is all the more real because they have individual flaws and weaknesses. They make bad decisions, and they do things which seem incomprehensible, but they are behaving the way people under stress behave. This is why this take on the age-old tale of the kitchen-boy who is really a hero remains fresh and wonderful twenty five years later. Of course, there is an Appendix in the back with the names and pronunciations of all the characters and places.

The intertwined stories of Simon and Miriamele are told in a way that is detailed and very real. Williams has painted his world with such detail that reader feels as if Osten Ard is a real place, and you feel as if you know it well. This series is so well drawn and plotted that I found myself dreaming about it when the books ended.

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