Book review of Tad William’s The Dragonbone Chair
Tad Williams is one of the big names in the fantasy genre that previously, I’d had no exposure to. I have always heard good things about his works, and so had fairly high expectations for the first novel in the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, The Dragonbone Chair. Lucky for me, Mr. Williams didn’t fail to delight.
Toward the end of this book, which only took me about a week for a novel of about 250,000 words, I read a few comments on the Shannara forum stating that the start of The Dragonbone Chair was a little slow. For me, this wasn’t true at all. I was finishing this book before I knew it. The pacing was perfect, starting out with a healthy dose of background for the main character, Simon, dabbled with action sequences, and steadily progressing to a fantastic finale. I think maybe some readers associate action with pacing, which just isn’t the case. An action sequence, if written poorly, can slow down and ruin the pace of a novel much more than a well written scene where characters are talking over tea. William’s ability to communicate a compelling story in a non-action fashion is not only brilliant, its what makes The Dragonbone Chair such a well-rounded novel. Here’s a perfect example of William’s ability at quality, engaging description:
Beyond the castle chapel the sea of roofs spread out in all directions: the Great Hall, the throne room, the archives and servant’s quarters, all pitched and uneven, repaired or replaced many times as the seasons in their passing licked at gray stone and lead shingle, then nibbled them away. To Simon’s left loomed the slender white arrogance of Green Angel Tower; farther back, protruding above the arch of the chapel tome, the gray, squat bulk of Hjelden’s Tower sat up like a begging dog.
Reading The Dragonbone Chair now shines a light on where it sits in the sequence of epic fantasy over the past century. It contains the classic epic quest elements, as seen in The Lord of the Rings and Shannara books, which were written prior. It also contains many elements that I recognized from novels that came after it, placing The Dragonbone Chair on a pedestal as an influencer of all modern epic fantasy. For example, the distributed kingdom, with each area having their own king, as well as the seasonal change of winter arriving in the summer months, both harken of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Martin upped the ante a bit, but the framework is contained here in The Dragonbone Chair, which was written around eight years prior.
Characterization in The Dragonbone Chair is unmatched. This is a large cast of top-notch characters, all displaying gritty attitudes and facing real problems, as we’ve seen more recently in A Game of Thrones, The Blade Itself, etc. From Rachel, the head maid of Hayholt castle, to Isgrimnur, a hulking Rimmersman from the North, these are characters you become involved with, understand, and learn to either root for or hate.
Amidst the great quest, the coming of a great evil, and the wicked deeds of a mad king, Tad Williams manages to work in a few other classic moments, ranging from comedy:
“Ah. A small aversion to menial labor?” The doctor cocked an eyebrow. “Understandable but misplaced. One should treasure those humdrum tasks that keep the body occupied but leave the mind and heart unfettered. Well, we shall strive to help you through your first day in service. I have thought of a wonderful arrangement.” He did a funny little jig step. “I talk, you work. Good, eh?”
to a little back-patting of his own art form:
Morgenes leaned forward, waggling the leather-bound volume under Simon’s nose. “A piece of writing is a trap,” he said cheerily, “and the best kind. A book, you see, is the only kind of trap that keeps its captive-which is knowledge-alive forever. The more books you have,” the doctor waved an all-encompassing hand around the room, “the more traps, then the better chance of capturing some particular, elusive, shining beast-one that might otherwise die unseen.” Morgenes finished with a grand flourish, dropping the book back up on the pile with a loud thump.
The Dragonbone Chair is the real deal. I’ve picked up many books recently that advertise themselves as the real deal, only to be disheartened upon diving in and finding mediocre writing at best. If you want to find a truly original work of epic fiction, that pulls from the greats before it, and influences all that comes after it, I recommend starting with The Dragonbone Chair, and not stopping until you’ve completed the four book series that is Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. I know I’m on board for the duration.
You can purchase The Dragonbone Chair over at Amazon.com.
I picked this up when it first came out and have re-read it every few years since. There is something about the way Tad writes that elevates this series in a hard way to put your finger on. The characters are brilliant, and the plot is not the same-old same-old and has some interesting dynamics. But in the end, it’s the characters I fell in love with and keep coming back to visit. Great review for a great book! Thanks!
I’m in agreement with the people saying it has a slow start. It really is painfully slow to get going, and it took me several attempts to get into it. Things start picking up after King John’s funeral, but it really crawls up to that point.
I love this book and the whole series. I agree that the beginning is a little slow, but it is well worth it in the end. Like Drew, I go back and read this series again and again. I’ve read hundreds of fantasy novels and this series stands among my favorites.
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