Two stories

Back in 1998, sitting in a Greyhound Bus Station in Corvallis, Oregon, ready to start a long Greyhound bus ride, I realized I needed something to read. And luckily the bus station had a rack of books, probably with a little tin where you put a dollar in on the honor system. And sitting on that rack was a book called "The Stone of Farewell", and it looked like perfect Greyhound bus reading, which is like airport fiction, only more so. The only problem was that amidst the greasy cramped nature of the Greyhound bus, I don't think I ever read it, but in a little corner of my mind, I remembered the prospect of cocooning myself with high fantasy doorstoppers. So, more than twenty years later, in a bookstore in Arcata, California, coincidentally one of the cities I passed through on that trip from Corvallis to San Francisco, I suddenly thought "Hmmm, maybe it is finally time".

In Santiago de Chile, the topic of conversation at all parties was Game of Thrones. I had a roommate who watched it was me, on a projector on our apartment wall in Providencia. References to the books would start my students talking in class, sometimes with flashes of anger. Shellshocked Venezuelan refugees would stumble off buses after weeks of fleeing their homeland, and would want to know the progress of the Westeros. And since I liked encyclopedic fantasy, I liked George RR Martin, but the grittiness of A Song of Ice and Fire was...too gritty. I made it through two books, thinking "Wouldn't it be great if there was something this epic in scope, but with less rape and torture?"

So, as you can probably guess, 20 years after the fact, I found that there was an epic fantasy series that was what I was looking for. And that is "Memory, Sorrow and Thorn", written by Tad Williams, and published between 1988 and 2004. The three books in the series are The Dragonbone Chair, The Stone of Farewell, and To Green Angel Tower.

If you took what you might think about a high fantasy trilogy, good and bad, and wrote it out in a list, you would probably have a pretty good idea what is going on in this series. It takes place in a fantasy version of Medieval Europe. It features a protagonist who is a common, even foolish young man, who must go on a journey. And, you might be wondering, is that journey to seek an enchanted object, perhaps even a magic sword? Why, yes it does. Does our foolish young protagonist find himself in the middle of dynastic struggles, perhaps between a pair of feuding brothers? Yes, indeed. Is there a beautiful and headstrong princess, perhaps travelling in disguise as a man? Does the story start with the fantasy equivalent of England, then spiral outwards to encompass more cultures, more fantasy races, and finally delve into the cosmology of the world itself? Yes. Every note that someone might expect from a high fantasy trilogy novel that runs to over 3000 pages, can be found here.

Of course, part of the reason why this seems so stereotypical is that people have been copying Tad Williams for the past few decades. Williams himself was inspired by JRR Tolkien, although he added another layer. What he added was political complexity. This book has a clear fantastical and magical background, and has a clearly defined "good" and "evil" side, but the fantasy quest is told over a realistic world. The world isn't just homogenous medieval fantasy Europe, but actually retells different European cultures in a fantasy setting: there are groups that are clearly supposed to be the Irish/Celts, the Norse, and also an equivalent of renaissance Italy. Counts and dukes and knights play political games while chandlers and bakers work in the corners. Even in a fantasy battle for the continuation of existence, kings have to gladhand and cajole, not just make epic speeches or have a magic item. But while this series is more realistic, it doesn't quite reach the level of cynicism of A Song of Ice and Fire. It is also much less visceral in its depiction of sex, violence and bodily functions. In fact, while it would be very reductive, it would be fair to say this book represents the halfway point between The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire, mixing fantasy quests with political history.

But, someone might ask, what is it like to read this trilogy? Well, I made it through around 3000 pages of it, so it must have been good. The book functions as a page-turning adventure novel at many points. Often the action is roundabout and seemingly irrelevant, but I wanted to find out what happened next. Some of the plot beats and transitions are overused: there seems to be many different instances of characters getting captured, knocked out, or somehow waking up somewhere new. Or just plain getting lost, falling down a hole, getting kidnapped, attacked by a crocodile... actually, at times, the characters seem pretty clumsy and accident prone, at least when the plot demands. The dozen or so main characters get separated, meet by accident, wander away, and stumble on each other in unforeseen places, sometimes hundreds of pages later. Someone making a map of each character's progress across the map in this book would have a task ahead of them. Of course, to the reader, it isn't always necessary to keep everything straight: the basic outline of who is going where and why are obvious enough. In retrospect, maybe not every one of those thousands of pages was necessary, but they seem vital at the time. For whatever reason, the book worked for me. I cared about the characters and the plot, even when I knew that what I was reading was somewhat cliched.

So, my overall review of this series will have to be "If this is the type of thing you like, you will like this". This is a fantasy trilogy that hits the points it is supposed to, involved the reader, and is generally interesting. And if you have a lot of time on your hands, if you are stuck on a Greyhound bus or in the middle of a power outtage, and if 3000 pages of ancient magic swords and adventuresome princesses sound like fun, then it is fun. If you thought The Lord of the Rings was too romantic, or A Song of Ice and Fire was too cynical, you will like this. It is adventuresome and comforting at the same time, which is what I like from my fantasy novels. Perhaps this is the book for you.

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