Monday, February 02, 2004

Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy

For those who enjoy large-scale epic fantasy, the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy by Tad Williams is one of the best I've read. The trilogy begins with The Dragonbone Chair, continues through Stone of Farewell, and wraps up with To Green Angel Tower. These are not short books, particularly the last (the paperback edition is split into two volumes), and so should last even fast readers a good bit of time. Don't be put off by the cover design, which does very little to convey anything about the story or characters; just read.

All the usual epic fantasy elements are present; the world "somewhat like ours" (or at least like ours might have been long ago), the requisite dark power wishing to conquer it, the wise and beautiful elven/faerie race who may or may not involve themselves in the struggle, and of course the young protagonist who goes from ordinary joe to epic hero during the course of the adventure. The story is also sprinkled with a nice selection of trolls, giants, wizards, castles, peasants, etc. in the best fantasy tradition. There are also, however, a few things that make it different from your ordinary epic. Instead of one wise white wizard as a source of safety and advice (think Gandalf, Dumbledore, etc.) throughout the story, there are a series of learned advisors who are wise but realistically not all-powerful. At one point, vaguely reminiscent of Gandalf blocking the Balrog's pursuit out of Moria (Lord of the Rings, for anyone who's not familiar with it), the wise Jarnauga enables a similar escape... by breaking off a knife blade in the door hinge to jam it. The quest element is also less precise that usual for a fantasy epic; instead of one item or task that needs to be found/disposed of/completed, the quest element unfolds more like a search for answers in how to halt the coming evil, with sub-quests being revealed as the answers arise.

A most interesting thing about the land, history and religion of Osten Ard is its relative but not exact similarity to our own. It's like a translation in which the translator has taken quite a lot of poetic license, or a different adaptation of the same play. The Aedonite religion of Osten Ard bears many similarities with Christianity, but also some interesting and creative differences; some of the "pagan" deities seem somewhat familiar too. The city and fallen empire of Nabban certainly bear some similarities to Rome and the Roman Empire, which naturally leads one to play guessing games with the other regions and cultures. Is Erkynland England? What is Perdruin supposed to represent? And the Wran... India, Africa, or somewhere in Southeast Asia? It's like an itch you can't scratch; enough similarities to cause your subconscious to try figuring it out, enough differences to make clean answers impossible.

Cultural references also abound, hidden throughout all three books. The folk hero Jack Mundwode (appearing in assorted songs and tales throughout the story) bears a strong resemblance to Robin Hood, but with the higher ideals filtered out; he's charismatic, but very much a bandit. There are also some nicely subtle Arthurian references, with the Lancelot/Guinevere story delicately played out in the background by characters you wouldn't initally guess at.

Finally, the cast of characters is what really makes this long tale worth reading. It's a multi-threaded story, told through many points of view as the narrative switches from thread to thread. The segments that deal with Simon, Prince Josua, and Miriamele are particularly compelling, with Maegwin and Guthwulf being the least interesting, in my humble opinion. But the major players are all well-crafted and dynamic characters, which is impressive in a work of this size; the author could easily have populated much of the book with the usual fantasy suspects, and instead chose to spend eight years creating a world full of characters you can believe in.

Of all the epic fantasy I have read, this is one of the few that brings something new and interesting to the genre. I would give it four stars and recommend it highly to anyone who reads fantasy.