“‘You see, lad, there’s the world in songs and stories, and then there’s the world that actually happens to you. And they’re not the same. Even the songs that are about real things — songs that are mostly true, I mean — they’re about people thinking about those things afterward.'”
So begins my introduction to venerated writer Tad Williams, the Erkynlanders, and the world of Osten Ard.
I can’t believe it took me so long to read this author, whose works are lauded as seminal to such brilliant writers whose work I love, such as John Gwynne, Patrick Rothfuss, and GRRM. But I’m very very happy to report that I’ve finally read something by Williams. I discovered I was definitely missing out.
It was not a conscious decision to read the second series set in Osten Ard, rather than Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn which is the original series that began the journey of Simon, Miriamele, and the characters who inhabit that world. I went into the bookstore, and “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn” books were not available, but the “Last King of Osten Ard” series was stocked and complete on the shelves, so that’s what I picked up. Hence, this review is of book one of that series, “The Witchwood Crown”.
Yet, it might seem a little backwards in terms of my reading choices. Still, there may have been some subconscious selection there, as when I understood it was a look at the protagonists as older rulers. I thought it might be interesting to see this perspective first, then if I liked the books, go back and see where it all started, sort of prequel-reading for me.
The book is set approximately thirty years after a great conflict against the god-like Storm King almost destroyed humanity.
There are many interwoven major and minor plot-lines and numerous POVs, however the main storylines are as follows:
First, in the realm of Osten Ard, High King Simon and High Queen Miriamele, heroes of the war that saw the Storm King vanquished, rule over a vast empire of sub-feudal human domains.
“The king and queen made an interesting pair, Pasevalles thought, seemingly as different as husband and wife could be. Simon was proud of his lowly birth and upbringing, and if given his way would have spent most of his time in the stable or the kitchens, gossiping with the servants. But the queen had been born to the old royal house, and was comfortable with most of the privileges of wealth and noble blood. She was also very fierce about protecting what she felt was right: When she sat in judgement she was fair-minded, but in no way the soft touch for a sad story that her husband was.”
However, some chafe under the rule of the benevolent and largely beloved high royal couple, and not all of their vassals seem to be completely loyal. Trouble is stirring for the High Queen and King, and betrayal could come from those closest to them.
The royal pair must also contend with their wayward grandson and heir, Prince Morgan. Morgan appears to want to carouse and fritter away any positive reputation, and anticipation of his ascending the throne. Simon and Miriamele still grieve for Morgan’s father – their deceased son Prince John Josua – while in the midst of their disappointment about their grandson’s negative proclivities, hoping there’s still time for Morgan to do a turnaround, and mold into a suitable king.
But more trouble than just feckless bannermen, a rowdy grandson, or even the looming death of a beloved friend in Duke Isgrimnur, are on the horizon. Simon and Miriamele have been estranged from their former non-human allies, the immortal Sithi, who sided with the royals to defeat the Storm King. Then, a Sithi ambassador is waylaid enroute to Simon and Miriamele’s capital.
What does the unexpected appearance of the Sithi envoy mean? And, just as important a question, who wanted her dead?
Meanwhile, far north of Osten Ard, dangerous enemies of Simon and Miriamele, some thought to be long vanquished or dead, are stirring, and plotting. The undying queen of the Norns, Utuk’ku, now awake in her capital city of Nakkiga, after a long magical sleep, has ominous plans for conquest.
At the centre of these schemes, a fearsome half-blood warrior, scorned for her mixed heritage, and seeking glory and vindication, named Nezuru, sees her opportunity for some measure of redemption. The hallowed remains of Hakatri, brother of the defeated Storm King, are sought during a perilous mission by a band of elite Norn warriors, of which Nezuru becomes a part.
But along with all the expected dangers of the quest, the Norns could not have anticipated an encounter with Jarnulf, a mysterious and powerful former slave who is sworn to destroy the Norns.
Next, Nezuru’s father, Viyeki, an immortal, is Queen Utuk’ku’s High Magister of Builders. Utuk’ku has instructions for Viyeki that are integral to her plans, that Viyeki dare not disobey, if he and his family wish to survive.
He departs on an errand to the lands of mortals, leaving his mistress, Nezuru’s mortal mother Tzoja, at the mercy of Viyeki’s vindictive wife Khimabu, who detests Tzoja. But Tzoja is a survivor, and has no plans to become the victim of the murderous jealousy of Khimabu, who particularly resents Tzjoa for bearing Viyeki the child in Nezuru, that Khimabu could not.
Finally, amongst the nomadic clans of the Thrithings, friends Unver and Fremur bond in the heat of battle. But Unver, a redoubtable warrior, though adopted by Fremur’s clan of Crane is considered an outsider, and is actually a member of the Stallion Clan. Fremur’s father is the leader of the Clane clan.
Unver is in love with Fremur’s sister Kulva. But Kulva is promised to another.
Besides this complication, outlanders are not considered worthy of a clan thane’s daughter’s hand. But Unver will not be easily denied, and Fremur will be caught in the middle of the feud for his sister, and the destiny of Unver.
What do I crave most in any book I read, regardless of the genre, subject matter, or length of the book? Fully realized, complex characters, and in depth, nuanced, languorous exploration of those characters. Well…
Williams’ character work is something stupendous to behold. The cast is stretched out far and wide, to the limits of Williams’ world, and there are a lot of players to keep track of. That said, Williams manages to create a real sense of intimacy and familiarity between the reader and the main characters, despite the numerous POVs.
Morgan’s imbibing and womanizing ways, coming to a place of more sobriety and enlightenment, and understanding more of his future responsibilities. The pride, perseverance, fierceness of Nezuru, striving for recognition and acceptance as one of mixed race who is treated like garbage, thought of as lesser, disparaged, and distrusted from the start because of her birth, and the trauma she experiences, and the growth she undergoes as she begins to see the world differently.
Miriamele and Simon’s healthy, humourous, but not-perfect relationship, an abiding love that has endured much, and has become unshakable over the passage of time and all the trials and tribulations they have experienced together, is lovely and heart-warming to behold.
These are just some of the highlights among some of the absolute best characterization in terms of depth and breadth I’ve seen in a fantasy novel. One of the main reasons why “The Witchwood Crown” comes in at just over a whopping 1000 Mass Market Paperback pages, is that Williams refused to be frugal whatsoever on exploring his characters. The complexity and profundity of character work involved, just like the scope of the worldbuilding, is wholly staggering.
Fair warning, even though they are introduced somewhat gradually, you may feel slightly overwhelmed by the inundation of names of people, names of places, interconnections between characters, races, religions, traditions, cultural norms, and more that is the experience of reading “The Witchwood Crown.”
I don’t believe one has to necessarily read Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn first to be able to better absorb and comprehend the backstory and history, as I certainly didn’t. Detailed and complete glossaries and appendices are a must with books like these. Never fear, Williams has them to refer to in “The Witchwood Crown”, and they are meticulous, while being easy to read, and will keep you straight about who is who, where they are, etc.
In saying that, it’s an extremely lush and immersive world that Williams has crafted in this book, on the level of the Erikson’s, Wurts, Tolkiens, Martins, Jemisins, etc. Giants, shapeshifters, mortal races, immortals, a humongous world, with various faiths and customs – Williams’ worldbuilding is superb. I must mention, the primary Osten Ard faith is surely analogous to Catholicism, with some interesting differences from the real world religion.
Williams does not fear tackling some pretty difficult themes, particularly with Unver’s, Tzoja’s and Nezuru’s (my favourite character) stories. He handles all these themes exceptionally well, with appropriate sensitivity and care, without shying away from the horrors of them.
Sexual assault, abuse, shaming, misogyny, caste systems, prejudice, bigotry, religious intolerance, nationalism, propaganda, and more are all dealt with in “The Witchwood Crown”. As a matter of fact, it’s truly a clash of races, cultures and ideologies that fuel the major conflict in this book. I found this book was actually surprisingly dark, yet hopeful, in many ways.
There was a lot of nostalgia surrounding the reign of Simon and Miriamele, which has obviously been glorious, but there is that sense of decay, and something coming to an end, as the aged monarchs try to hold the realm together, rally their people, and stave off treachery. Even without having read “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn” that nostalgia was palpable, for me.
This read is so layered, so dense, that those who don’t like that sort of book, and crave the fast-paced, may wish to look elsewhere. It’s not that plenty of things don’t HAPPEN. There is plenty of tension, lots of political intrigue, betrayals, deception, HUGE reveals, romance, fight scenes (on a smaller scale for the most part, yet very intense and extremely well-written), quests, and more.
It’s just not end-to-end pure adrenaline, like reading Evan Winter, or other writers with a propensity to eviscerate and lop off heads every other chapter. I’m absolutely fine with either pace, but you know I love the slow boil, careful build-up, things simmering to a boil, setting things up for later explosions. “The Witchwood Crown” is THAT type of book.
This book, like most first books in a series, involves a ton of set-up for future books, many many mysteries waiting to be revealed as the series unfolds, a lot of cryptic clues that may lead to nowhere, or be the key to everything.
Williams’ prose worked well for me, very atmospheric, some passages of simply beautiful writing, mostly very accessible yet fairly eloquent. While not quite as flowery as I adore, there was plenty of great work here to keep me absorbed, and with a book this long, a reader needs prose that will keep them immersed in the story.
If you are someone who is enamoured by high fantasy with quite dark undertones (like me), and want to peak at the immense talent of a writer who inspired wordsmiths like Gwynne and GRRM to create their own worlds, then I don’t think you’ll be able to feel your TBR is quite complete until you’ve added the books of Tad Williams to it.
I didn’t think there was any room in my crowded list of top 100 fantasy books of all time, but I had to elbow out some space for “The Witchwood Crown” by Tad Williams. Absolutely fantastic read, and Williams is a master storyteller. I will definitely be reading the entirety of both the “Last King of Osten Ard” and “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn” series.