The Last King of Osten Ard by Tad Williams


Lemming of Discord
Jun 4, 2006
The Heart of What Was Lost by Tad Williams

The Storm King has been defeated, his army of Norns driven off and peace returned to the lands of Osten Ard. King Seoman and Queen Miriamele have taken the throne in the Hayholt and a new age of peace beckons. But for Duke Isgrimnur of Rimmersgard the war is not entirely over. Along with the famed warrior Sludig, Isgrimnur has been given command of an army with orders to pursue the fleeing Norns back to Stormspike and ensure they are destroyed forever.

The Heart of What Was Lost acts as a bridge between the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy by Tad Williams and its upcoming sequel series, The Last King of Osten Ard. The first novel in that trilogy, The Witchwood Crown, will be released in June 2017. This book is useful for laying some groundwork for that trilogy and wrapping up some loose ends from the earlier series that Williams was unable to address at the time.

The Heart of What Was Lost is short, focused, lean and mean. Just 200 pages long in hardcover, making it barely a short story by the author's normal standards, it moves with pace and energy. As a war story it has quite a bit of action, but also with some strong moments of character-building as characters reflect on what is going on.

The book is related from three different points of view. Porto is an ordinary soldier in Isgrimnur's army who yearns for an end to the war so he can go home, but is distracted when he befriends a terrified younger fellow soldier and tries to keep him alive. Isgrimnur, a returning character from Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, is the gruff general and old warrior, still charismatic and skilled at warfare but hurting from the death of his son in To Green Angel Tower. Viyeki is a Builder, one of the main orders of Norn society, tasked with maintaining walls and fortifications, and the first Norn POV character in the series.

This POV rotation is effective, although Porto's contribution to the story is limited. I suspect Porto, or maybe his offspring, will play a role in the upcoming trilogy otherwise I can't see much reason for him being in this book. Still, he provides an interesting ground's eye view on the battles. Isgrimnur is the same world-weary warrior we met in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, but fleshed out as he grapples with the fall-out of his son's death. Williams is successful in making Isgrimnur's grief raw and convincing, given he last wrote for the character some twenty-three years earlier. The most successful character is Viyeki, who gives us a much-needed "bad guy" perspective on events. Although the first trilogy successfully established why the undead Ineluki wanted to destroy the world, it was less clear on why the Norns would support him. This book goes much deeper into their motivations, backstory and histories, fleshing out an under-explored area of the original trilogy's worldbuilding.

The story is short, mostly concerned with moral concerns as Isgrimnur ponders the wisdom of trying to make the Norns extinct and the Norns' battle for survival and hope to leave something for future generations to build upon. But it is powerfully and effectively told. Williams slips back into Osten Ard like he's never been away, and the novel feels weightier than it could have been, as the author slips extra moments of worldbuilding and foreshadowing for the future books into the narrative. There's also some nice misdirection. At one point the Norns outline a plan which feels almost like it could be the plot synopsis for the next trilogy, but this is then abruptly undercut when a major character dies and the plot takes an unexpected 90 degree turn onto a different path. Ultimately, this makes the book more self-contained than I was expecting. Certainly there is pipe-laying for The Last King of Osten Ard trilogy, but it's done very subtly.

The Heart of What Was Lost (****) is not just an effective scene-setter and palate-cleanser for the new trilogy, but a strong self-contained story in its own right, with more twists and turns than you might expect for its short length. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
This sounds very interesting. I liked Memory, Sorrow and Thorn a lot, but my main criticism was its very slow pacing. It sounds as if Williams may have got around this. I hope that he resists the urge to go full-on grimdark with the next set of books. I find the violence of MST and Williams' attitude to it much more mature than some of the more modern, grislier writers.
Thanks for the review - I'd completely missed that this had come out. I loved Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, though I read it a long time ago. I'll have to give this a try!
Downloading this now! Thanks Werthead, thought this was out later in the year.
I thought there was a nice touch in how he explored just what was important to the Norns, how their history made them what they are and whether or not they can consider looking to the future. A nice novella.
The Witchwood Crown

Thirty years have passed since the Storm King's War. Simon and Miriamele have ruled Osten Ard well, keeping the peace between the nations that make up the High Ward and the noble families within them, but their life has been tinged by the tragic death of their son. Their grandson Morgan stands to inherit the throne, but he is a wastrel more interested in drinking and wenching than in learning what he needs to rule. The heroes of the old war are passing and a new generation is coming to power, one that is less impressed by stories of old conflicts that they only half believe.

But in the far north, Stormspike is stirring. The Norn Queen has awoken after a long sleep and the lust for vengeance against humanity is resurgent. A band of Norn and half-Norn warriors strikes out on a quest they only barely understand. In the far south the kingdom of Nabban is on the brink of civil war. The Sithi have gone silent, their last messenger shot with arrows within sight of the Hayholt. The long peace is coming to an end, and the fate of the world again hangs in the balance.

The Witchwood Crown is the first novel in the Last King of Osten Ard trilogy, which sees Tad Williams return to the setting of his classic original trilogy Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (The Dragonbone Chair, Stone of Farewell and To Green Angel Tower) and the short novel The Heart of What Was Lost, published earlier this year. It's been twenty-three years since Williams last wrote in this world, the author wary of "franchising" his earliest and most iconic work until he had a story that was worth telling.

There is much to admire about The Witchwood Crown. Williams is telling a very large story from a large number of points of view. The original trilogy was very focused in the Hayholt and told a more linear, focused narrative which only gradually expanded outwards. This novel starts with a more George R.R. Martin-esque approach of having a larger cast in disparate parts of the world. One second we are with a slave living in the depths of Stormspike and then we're a thousand miles or more away in the palaces of Nabban, riven with Byzantine plotting. Old favourite characters return, including Simon, Miariamele, Tiamak, Eolair and Binabik, but there's a lot of new characters such as Morgan, as well as the return of characters like Porto from The Heart of What Was Lost. The worldbuilding is more in-depth, with reflections on time passing (Erchester is now a real city rather than the more modest town of the previous trilogy). Epic fantasy, as a genre, is at its best when it can indulge in "long-breathed storytelling" and The Witchwood Crown certainly does that. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and Williams develops his story with surety, confidence and time.

This does mean that The Witchwood Crown is a slow-paced work. Major plot revelations are separated by many chapters in which apparently little happens (although it does, it's just a lot more subtle). Although Williams tries very hard to make this book approachable for new readers, there's some instances of self-indulgence as Simon catches up with Binabik and asks about his family and his wolf, but this is generally kept to a minimum. The reason this book is so large (700 pages in hardcover) and so deliberately paced is because he is setting up a very big story and it's only towards the end of the novel that he fires the starting pistols which really get the narrative fired up.

This slow pace could be a bigger problem - and it's certainly put some other reviewers off - if Williams didn't also take his time to explore thematic ideas of ageing, grief and the passing of the years. Simon and Miriamele are now grandparents in their early fifties and apparently slightly baffled that so much time has passed so quickly. Those of us who read the original books when they first came out or shortly afterwards can sympathise: I finished reading the first trilogy on a fine summer afternoon in the park behind my old house almost exactly twenty years before I started reading this book, and a similar shock at the passage of time went through me. The characters are also haunted by the memory of the death of their son, John, and how this has impacted not just them but his son Morgan. Ironically, the joint grief they share has also divided them, with the natural lack of understanding between the generations preventing them from reaching an understanding.

This thematic idea gives the book a somewhat melancholy aspect. We also learn a lot more about the Norns and even sympathise with them (or at least some of them): they are a slowly dying race and their constant search for blood and vengeance seems pointless, corrupting further what was once a noble people. When they gain access to a new supernatural weapon, the reaction from some of the Norns isn't triumphant but instead weariness at the idea of yet another war, yet more pointless slaughter. The Witchwood Crown, on this level, is an epic fantasy that rejects some of the martial triumphalism and blood-letting that other epic fantasies revel in.

At the end of the book, some long-standing questions are raised, some long-missing characters return and other characters are left on immense cliffhangers, their fates unclear. Fortunately, we will not have to wait to learn more: the second novel in the trilogy, Empire of Grass, is already complete and should be published in late 2018 or early 2019.

The Witchwood Crown (****) is slowly, deliberately-paced and sometimes meanders or is allowed to become self-indulgent rather than being tightened up. It's certainly a slower novel than even the original Dragonbone Chair, and Tad Williams newcomers may be put off. But it's also wonderfully well-written and explores ideas of ageing, dying and living which are universal. For the most part the new storylines are logically extrapolated from the original trilogy without lazily rehashing it and confirms that yes, the return to Osten Ard is (so far) worth it. The book is available now in the UK and USA.
Ill defintely read this before the i start with the newest volume. Its been years since i read MS&T, but tad williams has always been great imo
Empire of Grass

The kingdoms of Osten Ard are in turmoil. A resurgent Norn threat in the north threatens Rimmersgard and northern Erkynland. The tribes of the Thrithings are in turmoil, a conflict that threatens to spill across the borders into Nabban and Erkynland. Hernystir is in danger of falling under the power of a dark cult. Civil war threatens in Nabban. The High King Simon and the High Queen Miriamele both try to tackle these issues, but the number of their reliable allies is falling and their grandson and heir is missing. But the threat is greater and closer than they think, as for the first time in thousands of years, the deathless queen of the Norns prepares to leave her stronghold.

The Witchwood Crown marked the start of The Last King of Osten Ard, a fresh trilogy picking up thirty years after the events of Williams' break-out work, Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. It was a slow-paced novel but one that had to set up an awful lot of plot points, as well as revisiting characters from the first trilogy and introducing new ones. At the end of the book things kicked off, with Prince Morgan fleeing into the Aldheorte Forest, Unver beginning his unification of the Thrithings tribes, Miriamele setting off on a dangerous mission to Nabban and a band of Norns confronting a dragon.

Empire of Grass picks up on these plot points and expands on them, ticking along at a faster pace than the first novel (helped by it being a slightly shorter book), with us rotating between events in Nabban, the Hayholt, Aldheorte, the grasslands, Nakkiga, Naglimund and other locations quite rapidly. The key difference between the two trilogies is that Memory, Sorrow and Thorn was focused very tightly on Simon with occasional cutaways to other characters, but Last King is a broad-spectrum, multi-POV, multi-location, full-on epic fantasy series with a lot more going on in different places. The loss of tight focus may be bemoaned by some, but it does at least present us with a really epic story told on a huge scale.

Empire of Grass is also important in that it identifies the long-missing children of Josua and Vorzheva, whose identities and destinies have driven a lot of discussion by fantasy fans for well over a decade. We learn more about the twins and where their paths have led them, with a real sense of mythic power that both may hold the fate of the world in their hands, despite not being primary POV characters. We also learn more about Vorzheva, but Josua remains missing, with a hunt for him by agents of the crown forming an intriguing subplot through the novel.

As usual, Williams' gifts remain in atmosphere, with his stately worldbuilding and measured prose, and characterisation. I've seen criticism of the first book stemming from Simon's apparent lack of success in being king, but I see this as Williams simply furthering his subversion of epic fantasy tropes that began way back in 1988 with The Dragonbone Chair: it turns out that a kitchen boy with no background in statecraft might not be the best person to make king. It's made clear that the more experienced Miriamele is a far better ruler and the real power on the throne, which helps better explain why things get worse once she leaves for Nabban. The assumption that the guy who saved the world in the first series would automatically be a greater ruler who never did anything wrong is a bit odd, and is Williams' exploration of the question George R.R. Martin asked of Tolkien about Aragorn: yes, he may have been a great warrior, but does that mean has great insights into tax policy and crop rotation techniques?

If Williams does have a slight weak spot it's political intrigue: Nabban sets up the facade of being a hotbed of double-crosses and Xanatos gambits, but the final revelation of what's going on in Nabban is more than a little simplistic and lacking, with the villain explaining why they are doing everything and might as well have twirled a moustache in the process. There's also a decided lack of explanation as for why the powers in Nabban think they can win a multi-pronged conflict against multiple enemies simultaneously, which is what they seem to be setting up at the end of the book.

There's some great battle scenes, as the Norn invasion gets underway in full, and some excellent character beats (particularly among the Norns and half-Norns of Operation Dragon Retrieval, probably the best storyline in the new series). There's also some decided repetition stemming from Williams' decision not to expand the story to new geographical areas. The big battle takes place on the site of an already massive battle from the first trilogy, and seeing Morgan struggle through Aldheorte Forest for dozens of pages on end might have been more compelling if we hadn't seen Simon do exactly this in the first trilogy, even visiting many of the same exact places along the way.

Where Empire of Grass is most successful is furthering the themes that The Witchwood Crown explored so thoroughly: ageing, losing loved ones and the younger generation not listening to its elders and making the exact same mistakes all over again. There's a melancholy strain in this trilogy which recalls Tolkien at his best.

Empire of Grass (****½) is a somewhat tighter and better-paced book than its forebear, developing the first book's stories, characters and themes well, and setting things up splendidly for the final novel in the series, The Navigator's Children, which I would be expecting to be published in 2021. The novel is available in the UK and USA now.
Brothers of the Wind by Tad Williams

Mortals have come to Asu'a from the west with dire news: the dragon Hidohebhi has descended from the mountains to wreak destruction and death on innocent farmers and settlers. The immortal Sithi usually pay little heed to the doings of mortals, but, recognising that the dragon presents a threat to everyone, the fiery and proud young prince Ineluki rides out to confront the beast. His steadier, calmer brother Hakatri rides with him, but the power of the dragon is greater than they could have feared. Their quest to slay the beast takes them far across the lands of Osten Ard, and their adventure is chronicled by Pamon Kes, Hakatri's faithful servant.

Brothers of the Wind is a stand-alone prequel to Tad Williams' masterwork of epic fantasy, the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy, and its currently ongoing sequel quartet, The Last King of Osten Ard. Set more than a thousand years before the previous books in the series, it chronicles an important event from the backstory to those novels. It is also a short, self-contained work which can be read as a standalone.

Williams is best-known for his immense doorsteppers of books. Case in point, the final Last King of Osten Ard novel was recently deemed unpublishable in a single volume and has been split in two. However, Williams is also a skilled writer of shorter fiction, in which his always carefully-crafted prose and finely-honed characterisation is also given an impressive sense of pace and focus. That could be seen in The Heart of What Was Lost, his 2017 short novel released as a prequel to The Last King of Osten Ard, and can be seen even more here.

Brothers of the Wind can be read as a tragedy. It has two lead characters, Hakatri and Ineluki, both seen through the eyes of Hakatri's servant Pamon. We get a much clearer view of Hakatri, whilst Ineluki - destined to become the Storm King of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn - is a more transient figure, flitting in and out of the story according to events and his changeable mood. Seeing mythical characters from one series, described in awe or terms of legend, as real flash-and-blood characters in another can be deflating, but the POV device Williams employs here lets us both get to know Ineluki better without damaging or reducing his mythic power.

The novel is divided into several parts. In the first part, the brothers seek out the great dragon to slay it, only to be comprehensively defeated. They find themselves wandering western Osten Ard in search of allies, lore or weapons that can help them in their quest. This part of the book is fascinating, as we see lands we know much better from the earlier novels in a more primitive state of existence: the people of Hernystir before the kingdom becomes known as that, and many more areas where the Sithi are still extant. Williams is a great travelogue writer and worldbuilder, and his skills here are put to good use, painting this earlier era of Osten Ard's history in as much colour and detail as his larger books.

In the latter part of the novel, the great dragon is once again confronted, but the consequences of that confrontation have wide-ranging affects. Those who have read the other books will get glimpses of the path that Ineluki sets out on that will lead to the events of the Storm King's War, but others will be more concerned with the relationship with Pamon and Hakatri, which takes an interesting turn. The story turns into one of a servant caring for his master and having to make hard choices on behalf of another, sometimes in ways that hurt himself.

The sheer size of the average Williams novel allows for a relaxed pace, sometimes too relaxed (the very first Osten Ard novel, The Dragonbone Chair, famously takes the better part of 200 pages to get moving), but Brothers of the Wind (****½) moves faster and with greater focus. It starts off as an adventure and gradually turns into a tragedy of genuine moving power, as well as foreshadowing events in the other books in the setting. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

The third volume in The Last King of Osten Ard, Into the Narrowdark, is due for publication in July, and should be followed by The Navigator's Children.
Into the Narrowdark

The High Kingdom is in peril. The Norns have returned and are advancing from the north, threatening both the Hayholt and the Sithi strongholds of the old forest. The tribes of the Thrithings are threatening an invasion from the east. There is civil war in Nabban. The realm needs King Simon to act decisively to crush these threats, but he is bereft and grief-ridden. As the king's allies try to rally to save the kingdom, his enemies move against him.

The Last King of Osten Ard is a sequel series to Tad William's Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy, an acknowledged classic of epic fantasy. Picking up the action thirty years later, this sequel series asks hard questions about what happens to the heroes who saved the day in one story and if they are the best people to lead the land through all the complexities of life in peacetime.

The first two volumes of the series, The Witchwood Crown and Empire of Grass, set up a fascinating, multi-sided conflict as the human kingdoms struggle with internal divisions whilst their old Norn enemies have managed to rebuild and are now threatening a fresh offensive. But, unlike the original trilogy, Williams also spends a lot of time in the Norn camp, exploring their internal divisions and politics as well, humanising this previously faceless enemy. The result is a richer, more interesting series which is less interested in being a retread of the hero's journey (though a few characters also get arcs more akin to that).

Into the Narrowdark is both the third book in the series and the opening half of the concluding chapter; yet again (to the point it's virtually become a meme) Williams delivered a book far too vast to fit between two covers and the book was split in half for publication. Unfortunately, this is to this volume's detriment. In normal circumstances, Williams is the very embodiment of the "slow-burn" writer, setting up his guns very carefully in a row before firing them, but when he fires them the story comes together impressively well, even within individual novels of a series. This novel is, unfortunately, all setup and no resolution, which is fairly frustrating given, at almost 600 pages in hardcover, it's not exactly a short book.

The other problem is that Williams is not at all shy to revisit previous story ideas. So, for those who were kind of over the characters spending hundreds of pages lost in the Aldheorte forest in earlier books, the prospect of spending yet more time with characters wandering through the exact same woods may not entice. The same for characters lost in the Nabbanese wilderness, or roaming back and forth through the Thrithings or even just roaming lost through the labyrinth cellars of the Hayholt. If we were getting major character growth or huge backstory revelations in these sequences, that would be one thing, but we're not, or very little. After the first two books did a good job of matching plot development, worldbuilding, political intrigue and character growth, this third volume feels more like an exercise in wheel-spinning.

That said, Tad Williams is still an excellent prose writer and a gifted evoker of atmosphere. The few battle sequences are vivid and well-described, and Morgan, at least, gets some much-needed growth. Returning to the world of Osten Ard is like revisiting an old favourite haunt, and there is much to enjoy in the scenery even if it doesn't feel like it's moving past very quickly.

The book does end on a rousing, startling cliffhanger and at least the second half of the novel is complete (although being revised), but Into the Narrowdark ends up feeling exactly what it is: half a book, in urgent need of its conclusion.

Into the Narrowdark (***) is half of a potentially very interesting book, but until the second half is published, it's hard to fully appreciate if this novel's slow, slow-burning pace is justified. The novel is available now in the UK and USA and the final volume in the series, The Navigator's Children, should hopefully follow in 2023.
I loved the rambling expanse of "Memory, Sorry and Thorn"- the only thing I didn't like was the ending, which really did not live up to the buildup for me. Of the new books, I thought "The Heart of What Was Lost" was absolutely stunning. The first two books of "The Last King of Osten Ard"- there's lots of good stuff in there, but the whole way through I was struggling with the feeling that the story was only just getting started - it felt like 1200-odd pages of preliminary setting up!