Friday, August 5, 2011

Tad Williams, 'The Dragon Bone Chair'

Tad Williams' masterpiece, the Dragon Bone Chair is the first book in the epic fantasy series, Memory, Sorrow and Thorn.  I first read this book when it came out in 1988 and had to re-read it again immedieately upon finishing it. This book and indeed the whole series had a profound impact on my own style of writing.

Just like the best and most enduring of love affairs, The Dragon Bone Chair begins a bit slowly, as the author establishes the background to the tale. However, once you are into it, this book is 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 royal household during last days of the long reign of King John Presbyter. However, he is overjoyed 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 tool 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 Sitha Prince that he had rescued from the trap, and Jiriki joins Simon in his quest.

This story is so well drawn and plotted that I found myself thinking about it when I was not reading it.  There is a large cast of characters, but I found it fairly easy to keep them straight because they are drawn with attention to their individual personalities.  The characters are all the more real because they each have flaws and weaknesses.  That is why this take on the age-old tale of the kitchen-boy who is really a hero is fresh and wonderful.   Of course, there is an Appendix in the back with the names and pronunciations of all the characters and places.

It is clearly book one in a larger series, and Simon's adventures are absorbing and exciting.  The beasts are fantastic as are the representatives of the various races who come to Simon's aid. Their magics and their cultures are clearly drawn; and the  story-line is the most compelling and addictive book I've read in a long time.

The intertwined stories of Simon and Miriamele is 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. I had to get the rest of the the books in the series downloaded to my Kindle, as I couldn't wait to re-read the whole series.


Gary Hoover said...

Thanks! I've read Brother Betrayed and loved it, but I haven't read anything by Tad Williams, so I may have to try something by him.

Lisa Zhang Wharton said...

Connie, after reading this blog, I would love to read Brother Betrayed and Dragobone Chair. Thanks for sharing.

jennymilch said...

Great to read the two reviews--and see the beautiful artwork!

STaitel said...

I've not read Brother Betrayed, but have read all of the Memory Sorrow Thorn, trilogy. Warning to anyone considering picking them up, they are a comitment, they are long, and some of the things he puts Simon through are agonizing, but I agree that he invests you in the characters very deeply. Wow that was a long sentence.

Kathleen Barker said...

Can't wait to wade through my to-reads to get to these!

Unknown said...

Wonderful post!