Memory, Sorrow and Thorn by Tad Williams

Toby Frost

Well-Known Member
Jan 22, 2008
The four books* that make up the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn Quartet (MST) were published between 1988 and 1993, and now seem like a half-way point between the relative jollity of authors such as David Eddings and the dung-spattered misery of the modern “grimdark” writers, in particular George R R Martin. They are set in a world roughly equivalent to Medieval Europe, and tell the story of a servant boy, Simon, and his adventures as the kingdom he inhabits is split by civil war and supernatural evil. So far so standard, you might argue, but it is the skill which Williams brings to the details of his world that makes the books really interesting.

Simon starts The Dragonbone Chair as a scullion, but, due to luck (bad and good) ends up fleeing the castle when the good old king is supplanted by his evil son and a league of monsters. Over the course of the series, he falls for a fugitive princess, becomes a knight, participates in battles and raids and nearly saves the day. Simon’s story broadens, and about a dozen major characters have adventures in their own points of view.

In some ways, this is all very familiar stuff. But Williams gives his slightly hackneyed setting unfamiliar weight: the religion feels like more than just a set of things to swear by; the weather and the landscape are convincing and, in a great touch, the dwarf equivalents owe much more to Eskimos than they do to the beardy Scotsmen of Warcraft and a thousand other fantasies. Even the Sithi, the inevitably too-perfect sad-eyed elf equivalents, feel three-dimensional. Sometimes the basing on real-word equivalents is obvious, but I see nothing wrong with that, given the solidity it gives to the writing. Even the inevitable quest for a magic item is dealt with, and subverted, skillfully.

Williams can write exciting prose, and his descriptions of battles, while not wallowing in quite as much gore as more modern writers, are still powerful. But when he lags, it’s agonizing: each book contains a lengthy description of someone, usually Simon, getting lost and fumbling about for pages on end. Certain minor characters – Guthwulf and Maeguin in particular – end up doing one thing, and when they appear, they seem to do it for ages, over and again. The good bits (and there are many) are very strong, but the story can become bogged down. Opening To Green Angel Tower – Siege at random, I get two pages about a character having a wash, just to introduce the bug-monster she glimpses as she gets changed. While MST is deeply engrossing, it’s sometimes very slow.

Williams isn’t as grisly as Martin or Abercrombie, and there is very little sexual content in the quartet: there’s no (violent) rape depicted, although it surely occurs along with murder and pillage, and the consensual stuff occurs behind closed doors. Also, Williams doesn’t seem much interested in the details of torture and violence, and doesn’t feel the need to remind us naïve readers that war is miserable and life sometimes not terribly fair. As such, Williams actually feels more mature than some of the gorier writers: the horrors are there, but he doesn’t titillate by pouring it on.

In fact, where Williams comes through, I think, is in conveying a sense of decency. Simon is appalled by the things he sees, and wrestles with his conscience when he becomes a warrior. His friends – Williams is good at depicting friendship – have their own problems. Prince Josua struggles with the burden of leadership and is as stubborn as his wife is irritable. Binabik the troll (dwarf) finds romance. All through the books, characters reflect on the difficulty of religious belief in a world gone horribly wrong. These are basically good people in a bad world, and Williams is good at depicting, first, their helplessness and, second, their moral problems with the solutions they must apply.

For me, MST represents the high-water mark of a certain type of epic fantasy, the “farmboy made good” story. It’s not breathtakingly original, and it certainly isn’t briskly-paced, but it is excellently executed. Its intelligence and lack of cynicism, along with the strong characters and interesting details, make these books very engrossing. One small caveat, though: one of the five or six major plot strands is tied up much too neatly at the end. However, if this is your sort of thing, then you will probably love it.

*in the UK.
I read them years ago, as they first came out so my memory is not going to be as good as I would like.

They were a good fun read and I enjoyed all three of them (they were originally released as a trilogy, but once they transitioned to paperback the final book was a bit big).

I really enjoyed them, just thought the end was a little bit of an anti-climax.

They are well worth a read though, and probably the best thing Williams has done.
I remember enjoying it but like many others, I only had the first book and went on to read other things. Now it has been so long I hardly remember it. This could be on the list of things I would like to eventually read again and finish.
Been a few years since I read them. The writing quality's high, but there was a fair bit that could've been cut, without the story losing anything (and, indeed, gaining some pace). I enjoyed them, despite that.
I don't know if I would have lavished so much praise upon the series; granted, some aspects were well done, but to be honest, I hated all the leapfrogging he did with the POVs. It made the series, in my eyes, rather choppy and disjointed, that I feel it detracted from the quality.
I just finished the first book, The Dragonbone Chair. I enjoyed it very much and will read on. I'll post more on these books in due course.

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