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Summer’s End

Cruel orb, my foe, the sun,

Glaring upon things
I never want to see again
The proud, lightning-limbed oaks
Of Hekhasor
The shimmering blue waters of Silverhome’s lake
And the endless, endless sky
Go away, foul sun! You make me sad.”

“’The world will be ours again, as it once was. We will go out from this empire of grass with our brave horseman and fight until the world bends its knee to the new Shan.’”

“Empire of Grass” – “The Last King of Osten Ard”, book two – continues the fabulous, sprawling, absolutely epic fantasy tale that seminal author Tad Williams began with “The Witchwood Crown”, book one in the series.

In “Empire of Grass” one can just feel the tension rising to a breaking point, as the world Williams has created teeters on the brink of a massive, catastrophic conflict. The fallacy that peace seems to be currently the status quo, only makes what inevitable clashes that are coming even more portentous.

As in book one, there are many interwoven major and minor plot-lines and numerous POVs, however the main storylines are as follows:

Prejudices, hatred, and lust for revenge, conquest, and glory are driving various factions to strategically position themselves for a strike against their enemies. Chief among those are the Norns, the immortal race that resides in the Nornfells, in the frozen northern region of the lands of Osten Ard.

Led by their undying, ominous queen, Utuk’ku, the Norns have been defeated in the past by the alliance of mortals and other immortals, led by High King Simon and High Queen Miriamele, whose seat is Hayholt, in the land of Erkynland. But Utuk’ku is determined to eradicate mortals, who the Norn believe are inferior scum.

Utuk’ku’s deepest, most pernicious schemes are known only to her, but it’s clear there are no boundaries she won’t cross to achieve her ends. She will have the dead brought back to life, and spend the lives of her soldiers ruthlessly. And the queen is fixated on her primary objective: having her forces turn towards Hayholt.

Utuk’ku’s commanders might secretly begin to question her methods, but they are too scared or too devoted not to follow her orders, including High Magister Viyeki. Yet Viyeki fears, no matter what he does – fail or succeed – he may not be able to save himself from a horrible fate at the hands of the dreaded queen.

And the Sacrifice Nezuru, Viyeki’s half-mortal daughter, on her perilous mission at behest of Utuk’ku’s subordinate, is pushed to her physical and emotional limits, trying to survive, and the biggest threat to her would seem to be her own companions, who despise her.

All except the mysterious outsider, Janulf, who seems to be the last person that she should trust, but can’t help being drawn to. But Janulf, impossibly, plans to assassinate Utuk’ku. Yet Nezuru might have to kill him before his audacious plan finds some chance of success.

Meanwhile, Nezuru’s mother Tzoja must find her way after fleeing certain death, and discover her heritage, and the destiny that awaits her.

Next. as the opening quote indicates, there is trouble stirring in the plains. The nomadic clans of the Thrithings are stirring. Now unified under a single leader, the Shan. These grassland tribes are driven by a natural mistrust and revulsion of city-dwellers, like High King Simon and High Queen Miriamele, and their subjects.

Whipped up into a frenzy for war and bloodshed, former outsider Unver and former minor tribal nobleman Fremur are at the centre of directing the warpath that the Thrithings have chosen. And that warpath is aimed at the very heart of the domains of Simon and Miriamele.

As for the high royal couple, as all these enemies swirl around them, plotting their defeat, they fear for the life of their grandson and heir, Prince Morgan, thought to be kidnapped by the Thrithings. Moreover Simon and Miriamele become embroiled with turmoil within and outside of Erkynland.

While attending a wedding in Nubaan, Miriamele is trapped in a violent rebellion. This leaves Simon to confront clever and duplicitous nobles amongst his ranks, who plot the downfall of the high rulers, looking to wrest power for themselves.

Will old alliances that Simon and Miriamele have forged with the immortal Sithi, hold true? Or will the High King and Queen be left alone to combat their foes on every front?

Williams treats the reader to some of the most painstaking and precise character work one will find in epic fantasy. The reader will feel that they have been given every possible thought, motivation, feeling that is relevant to each main character’s arc. Williams takes his time and teases out who these characters are at their core, their idiosyncrasies, strengths, and weaknesses.

Through inner monologues, dialogues with other characters, and exposition, Williams leaves no stone unturned until the reader will feel the characters are REAL in every facet. It is exhaustive, and some might find it exhausting.

Still, if you like the kind of intimacy with your characters that a writer such as Robin Hobb insists on, rest assured Williams is also one of those iconic writers who will not compromise on character development. Personally, I love and deeply respect Williams’ efforts at characterization.

In this book, besides Nezuru and Fremur, one of the primary characters, Simon, truly stood out for me in a way that he did not in the first book, despite being essentially one of the protagonists, arguably THE co-protagonist (shared with Miriamele).

Simon, the kind and benevolent monarch, who’d rather mix with the commoners, swap stories, and reminisce about past glories, has hoped to put the tumult and war of his younger years, forging his kingdom and protecting the mortal realms, behind him.

But fate will not allow him to do so, and he’s clearly overwhelmed by all he must confront in terms of the threats to his realm, external and internal. He’s separated from his wife and soulmate, the more steely Miriamele, who’s the backbone of the relationship, and it leaves him floundering somewhat.

Simon has plenty of inner mettle, but can he deal with his seemingly insurmountable challenges without the high queen by his side?Morgan also struck a chord with me, more than in “The Witchwood Crown”. The young prince, whose desire to prove that he’s more than a foppish, gallivanting womaniser, unfit to one day take up the high seat, puts him in dire peril. Morgan will learn critical lessons about what it means to have true courage, and what it takes to be a leader, and a king.

The “Last King of Osten Ard” series is classic epic fantasy, and Williams furnishes the type of spectacular, mind-boggling world building that lovers of such series as “A Song of Ice and Fire” can’t get enough of.

From hundreds of unique characters, diverse races, varying religions and faiths, different traditions and cultures, giants, shapeshifters, undeads, mortals and immortals, this is the kind of astonishing worldbuilding that earns the admiration of other great writers of fantastic worlds, and their readers.

Kudos to Williams for the empathetic way in which he deals with contentious themes. Sexual assault, misogyny, caste systems, prejudice, bigotry, religious intolerance, nationalism, propaganda, culture clash, and more can be found to permeate the pages of “Empire of Grass”.

While the political intrigue, hidden lineages, betrayals, deception, HUGE reveals, romance, fight scenes, quests, reveals, continue to escalate in wonderful form from the previous book, “The Witchwood Crown”, please realize, dear reader, that these events will be interspersed with a generous amount of character development that may make the plot move forward at more of a walk, than even a trot, when you may be screaming for a full out gallop.

Upon reflection, I underrated Williams’ prose, in my review of “The Witchwood Crown”. It is outstanding, and continues to impress me more with each book. In “Empire of Grass” I picked up much more of that lyrical, poetic quality that was there all along in book one, as I doubled back to resample a few chapters from “The Witchwood Crown”, just to confirm. Perhaps I was just more attuned to it in book two.

This is yet another nigh 1000-page Mass Market Paperback tome, and I can see how some readers might find the massive cast of characters, for some what is a tumefied narrative, and ending that some may find inconclusive, all combine to make this a challenging read.

Yet the sinuous yet somehow extremely well-connected plot, outstanding character work, fabulous prose, and exemplary storytelling in this series, two books in, thus far has filled me with unadulterated joy. The commodious worldbuilding created by Williams easily ranks up there in terms of depth and scope with any of the most intricately crafted worlds of our time, including those built by Wurts, Martin, Tolkien, Martin, Jemisin, etc.

There is more than enough in this series to establish it in my top fifty fantasy series of all time, and both “Empire of Grass” and its predecessor “The Witchwood Crown” are solidly now in my top 100 fantasy books as well.

Quick note: there seemed to have been some confusion surrounding this series, in terms of it being a trilogy or a quadrilogy. As far as I can determine, it will indeed be a quadrilogy, with the next book, “Into the Narrowdark”, already released, and the final book, entitled “The Navigator’s Children” expected in the fall of 2023.

I already have “Into the Narrowdark” on my shelves, and am eager to get to it sometime this summer, to have me queued up and ready to read “The Navigator’s Children” this coming winter.

I am eager to proceed with the next installment in this series, and can’t wait to see what transpires next.

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