The Witchwood Crown by Tad Williams
|Book Name:||The Witchwood Crown|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook|
|Release Date:||June 27, 2017|
Spoiler Warning: This is the third and, for now, final* installment in Fantasy-Faction’s Osten Ard retrospective. With the release of The Witchwood Crown, Tad Williams has returned to the land from which his greatest tale was born. What follows contains spoilers for the entirety of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn and The Heart of What Was Lost but does not contain any but the mildest of spoilers for The Witchwood Crown. It has been a pleasure to revisit Osten Ard over the last several months, and I hope that these pieces have encouraged those that haven’t delved into Williams’ beloved work to do so. There’s no better time.
*The next book in this series, Empire of Grass, is forthcoming.
There’s an old adage that says, “you can’t go home again.”
It doesn’t apply to Tad Williams.
With The Witchwood Crown, Williams has embarked upon a new series set in the seminal world of Osten Ard. He does so with a glee that leaps from the written page, and with the benefit of 20+ years of experience as both a writer and a man. It is Williams’ best book to-date, and not only does he avoid tarnishing the legacy of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, he doubles down on it, crafting a thrilling tale that welcomes old and new readers alike to a world straddling the knife’s edge between peace and chaos. Williams is all-in on Osten Ard once again and I, for one, couldn’t be happier.
Set nearly 30 years after the events of To Green Angel Tower, The Witchwood Crown (like most of Williams’ oeuvre) is equally driven by plot and character. From the opening pages, Williams makes it clear to the reader that the era of peace and prosperity Osten Ard has enjoyed since the fall of the Storm King could be nearing an end. He does so while seamlessly introducing new characters and re-acquainting the reader with old friends. As ever, there is no division between plot and character in Williams’ prose.
This style of writing feels instantly familiar to readers of his previous work, but there is a new depth to the characters and events that is derived from years of writing experience which Williams simply didn’t have at the time of the first trilogy. While I’d never classify MS&T as the work of a newcomer, Williams was still a journeyman in the 1990s. Now, he’s a master storyteller. The Witchwood Crown has a timeless quality to it, and an emotional heft that can only come from living life.
It would have been easy to craft a prologue or use some other literary device to bring the reader up to speed, but Williams eschews such shortcuts in favor of letting the tale develop naturally. The backstory–if hundreds of thousands of published words in the same world can be called a backstory–fills in at an organic pace. There are no info dumps, there are no blatant flashbacks. Instead, there is an abundance of effortless dialogue and narration, guiding the reader simultaneously through what is happening as well as what has happened. It makes the entire novel a welcoming experience for new readers and old.
Williams doesn’t stray far from his wheelhouse when it comes to the plot. The Norns still cast a dark shadow over Osten Ard, despite their defeat in MS&T. Magic and mystery abound, and the forces of good and evil are still engaged in a brutal–although less world-shattering–game of cat and mouse. The new threat from the North is joined this time by threats from within. The overt political intrigue in The Witchwood Crown is a new element to Williams’ world, and it is most welcome. Williams wisely doesn’t reach for Game of Thrones levels of political interplay, but it is clear from very early on that some are chafing under the current High King’s Ward and the political unrest is a major issue facing the King and Queen.
And what a King and Queen they are.
Simon Snowlock–still a bit of a “mooncalf” and definitely still a scullery boy at heart–and Miriamele, Princess-turned-Queen are the furthest from a “power couple” the fantasy genre has seen in years. They are, first and foremost, a husband and wife. That basic human connection–one they value above all others–is the lodestone by which they are guided. Williams writes a married couple in a truthful, unadorned manner that hits home with anyone who has been married for more than a few years. Like their Ward, their relationship is constantly evolving. By not shying away from their imperfections as a couple, Williams has succeeded in crafting a near-perfect depiction of what a real marriage is like. That relationship–one that has the weight of years behind it–is one of the highlights of the book.
The King and Queen have kept old friends close. Tiamak of the Wran, Count Eolair of Hernystir and Jeremias (Simon’s childhood friend and fellow member of the servant class) are two of the King and Queen’s closest advisors, elevated to stations befitting their worth–both to Simon and Miri and to the High King’s Ward itself. Even Pasavalles–a minor character who appeared briefly as a child in MS&T–returns, in a much larger role. And though separated by geography and kept apart by responsibility, both Duke Isgrimnur of Rimmersgard and Binabik the troll loom large in this opening volume.
Williams makes excellent use of some of the characters and ideas introduced in the prequel novella The Heart of What Was Lost. Norn customs and politics continue to be a major plot point, and Sir Porto of Perdruin and Viyeki of the Hikeda’ya, in particular, serve very specific purposes in the The Witchwood Crown. It seems clear that Williams had their larger roles in mind when writing the novella.
The new characters feel as familiar and fully-formed as the old. Prince Morgan–Simon and Miri’s grandson and presumptive heir to the throne–is a wonderful addition to the canon, and hearkens back to The Dragonbone Chair version of Simon. He’s moody, he’s recalcitrant and he is far deeper than outward appearances would suggest. The same can be said of Nezeru, one of the most complex and fascinating characters Williams has ever created. Born of a Norn magister’s coupling with a mortal slave, Nezeru’s struggle with her heritage–kicked into overdrive by escaped slave Jarnulf–is one of the most interesting conflicts in the book.
Some characters are conspicuous in their absence, but in the interest of avoiding spoilers I’ll say no more. And in other cases, the absence of characters such as Morgenes, Strangeyard and Geloe–all lost in the first trilogy–becomes a meta-conversation shared between the reader and the characters. The idea that the characters miss their departed friends as much as the reader does is imparted with a delicate touch, but that loss is keenly felt on all fronts.
The Witchwood Crown could easily could have veered into maudlin territory. Loss, grief, insecurity and hopelessness are all major themes throughout the book. But instead of wallowing in these emotions, Williams’ characters (with a few exceptions) acknowledge them and confront them head-on in a very true and immediate way. The end result is a book that deals with the realities of human life. The idea that one must continue to live despite the loss of family and friends is an idea all but the youngest of us have struggled with at one point or another. Williams captures this feeling remarkably well, and is able to use it as another building block from which his characters are constructed. The result is a shared intimacy between the reader and the characters that is often absent from similar works.
The Witchwood Crown is classic fantasy informed by the state of 21st Century humanity. In a post-ASOIAF world, it bucks the trend toward the grim and gritty and instead embraces wonder, adventure, war and terror in equal measure. It is perfect in its emotional imperfection in the same way Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer series was: regardless of how fantastic the setting or plot may be, there is a very recognizable humanity to the characters and the themes of the book have an emotional weight that resonate with the reader.
The Witchwood Crown delivers on the promise of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. It never feels forced, contrived or frivolous. Quite the opposite, in fact. It feels inevitable, like a story that needed to be told. Tad Williams’ return to Osten Ard was long overdue. The Witchwood Crown is a triumph on every level. It feels like coming home.