Friday, November 8, 2013

The Dragonbone Chair, Tad Williams

Traditionally, November is my month of revisiting some of my all-time favorite books. I am heavily involved in NaNoWriMo, which means I don't have time to read, only to write. But while I am writing I think about the books that moved me, and consider why they moved me. Today I am going back to one of my favorite series, which I first reviewed in 2011.  Tad Williams's epic masterpiece, the Dragonbone Chair rocked my reading world, landing in my library with the power of an earthquake.

A war fueled by the dark powers of sorcery is about to engulf the peaceful land of Osten Ard--for Prester John, the High King, slayer of the dread dragon Shurakai, lies dying. And with his death, an ancient evil will at last be unleashed, as the Storm King, undead ruler of the elvishlike Sithi, seeks to regain his lost realm through a pact with one of human royal blood. Then, driven by spell-inspired jealousy and hate, prince will fight prince, while around them the very land begins to die. Only a small scattered group, the League of the Scroll, recognizes the true danger awaiting Osten Ard. And to Simon--a castle scullion unknowingly apprenticed to a member of this League--will go the task of spearheading the quest for the solution to a riddle of long-lost swords of power...and a quest that will see him fleeing and facing enemies straight out of a legend-maker's worst nightmares!

Tad Williams's epic masterpiece, the Dragonbone 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 immediately upon finishing it. This book and indeed the whole series had a profound impact on me and on my children when they became older teens.

Just like the best and most enduring of love affairs, The Dragonbone 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.

A series of very bad things happen and Simon accidentally stumbles into the adventure of a lifetime although, in his misery, he doesn’t realize it.  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.

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 a 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.

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.  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.
This is sweeping tale, one that takes you all over the world of Osten Ard and immerses you in the cultures of the people. The intertwined stories of Simon and Miriamele are told in a way that is detailed and very real, yet left my mind free to envision the world for myself. 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 story is so well drawn and plotted that to this day I find myself thinking about it when I am not reading it.   

It is clearly book one in a larger series, Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, 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 logical. The story line is the most compelling and addictive and stands out as one of the great moments in fantasy. I had to get the rest of the books in the series downloaded to my Kindle, as I couldn't wait to re-read the whole series.

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