I am on a roll--Two reviews in row for the same author! 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 immediately upon finishing it. I read it aloud to my children, as each new book in the series came out. This is a sweeping series, and Simon's adventures are absorbing and exciting, and is a cornerstone of my library.
But first, The BLURB:
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 Siti, 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!
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. He 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.
Simon’s quest begins simply (in his mind) as a just a desperate need to escape the horrors he’d witnessed at the Hayholt. It becomes so much more, and over the course of the books, he grows from an indecisive boy into a man capable of strong leadership. The divergent paths he and Miriamele must take are hard and nearly break them, but through those struggles they are both made stronger.
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 storyline is the most compelling and addictive book I've read in a long time. The world of Osten Ard is real and the story set within it is so well drawn and plotted that I find myself thinking about it when not reading it. Williams paints his world with such detail yet he never falls into the trap of beating the reader to death with the minutia.
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 strengths, 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.
The intertwined stories of Simon and Miriamele is told in a way that is compelling and very real. Love jealousy, betrayal and redemption--all the worst and best of human emotions are vividly portrayed in these pages. The day I got my first Kindle I had to get the rest of the books in the series downloaded, as I couldn't wait to re-read the whole series. This is my go-to series when I am looking for a tale that really resonates and absorbs me. I have re-read this series every year since the day the first book was published.
Word has it Williams is once again working on a book set in this world. I guarantee I will have it on pre-order the moment it is available.