Review: The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams

Monday, January 9, 2012
Author: Tad Williams
Series:  Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn #1
Pages: 766 (mass market paperback)
Published: 1998 by DAW
Source: bought
Rating: 3.5/5
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. With his death, and ancient evil will at last be unleashed, as the Storm King, undead ruler of the elvishlike Sithi, seeks to regain his lost realms 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 that offers the only hope of salvation, a ridde 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!

The Dragonbone Chair is about the adventures of Simon, a servant in Hayholt Castle, who goes from simple scullion to reluctant hero over the course of this book, the first installment of the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series. I've had the books in this series on my to read list for awhile but have avoided them because of Williams' reputation of slow build-up.

There are several things to enjoy in this novel. The story, while somewhat formulaic, is nevertheless a fun ride through a colorful world of intrigue, magic, and religion. Williams successfully mixes different cultures and belief systems in a realistic manner, forming a diverse set of characters with varied backgrounds who bring their own personal tales to the table. Many of the secondary characters act believably and show how different factors- age, loyalty, sex, religion- can influence our decisions and create the messes that we as a human race seem unable to stop forming.

Williams also has a special way with words, as shown in the following passage:

"Glaring down into the muddy water, he had a sudden nervous premonition that the crabs were somehow a step ahead of him- were perhaps even now waiting for him to drop the cage down lardered with another pop-eyed head. He could picture a whole tribe of them scuttling over with expressions of glee to poke the bait out through the bars with a stick or some other such tool recently granted to crab-kind by some beneficent crustacean deity.

Did the crabs worship him as a soft-shelled providing angel, he wondered, or did they look up at him with the cynical indifference of a gang of ne'er-do-wells taking the measure of a drunkard before relieving him of his purse?"

He demonstrates his knack for description as well as delving into hilarious anthropomorphism, a favorite form of humor for me.

However, Williams' strong suit is also a vice, as he struggles with the correct ratio of description to action/ dialogue. He sometimes seems to get wrapped up in showing the reader these details and forgets that he has an obligation to move his story forward. I suppose that in itself is a backhanded compliment, since the description itself is done so well. But it is my biggest beef with The Dragonbone Chair and the main reason for its lower rating. The book probably could have been a lot better with the removal of about 150 pages.

I'm also not 100% sold on Simon as the hero. I can certainly see his slow progression into young adulthood, but I still feel there were too many deus ex machina-type moments where Simon is saved at the last second by sheer luck or being in the right place at the right time. I'd like to see more of him really figuring things out himself and taking charge in the next installment.

Overall, I would recommend this if you are a high fantasy aficionado, or if you love good description. But be prepared for a few dull moments on the journey.

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