In my most recent post, I noted I would rather read the fantasy novel I finished while in Miami than write about politics. Lately, perhaps to inspire me to write the epic that has been kicking around in my head for some time now, I have been returning to fantasy fiction, even asking (in a recent post) our readers to recommend their favorite stories to me. (Please feel free to do so if you have not already.)
I find it amusing how I got around to reading the book I just finished, Stone of Farewell, the second volume of Tad Williams’ trilogy Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. I had been reading The Dragonbone Chair, the first volume in the series, just before I started law school in 1991. I found it thoroughly engaging and put it down only reluctantly. When I moved to Charlottesville, I became too busy with my studies to finish the book.
While at U-VA, I either misplaced my copy of the book or had forgotten about it. So, I never finished the book. It was not until my only story started to grow again (more than a decade later) that I recalled how much I had enjoyed Williams’ story. Last fall I bought another copy of The Dragonbone Chair and started reading it again. I was struck by how little I remembered. I mean, I did remember the basic outline about the flight of the hero, a scullion from a castle flees the realm’s capital shortly after the death of a wise and aged king. On his journey, he finds shelter at one point with the mysterious Sithi, an elf-like folk.
Once again, I read the book quickly, setting it down only reluctantly. I must not have found it as engaging as I had in the 1990s as I set it aside for nearly a year, picking it up again last month only when a friend was delayed in coming over. While I had initially regretted his delay, I then almost regretted his arrival, so engaged was I in the book.
I would finish the book only on the first day of this trip, speeding through the sequel while in Miami. It was perfect poolside (and bedtime) reading. I didn’t have to think too much as I read, but did need reach for a pencil and pad every now and again for it did help stir up some thoughts for my own tale.
I noticed something else as I read, problems which seemed endemic to much of the fantasy fiction that I have read in recent years. One difference to note at the outset. The first few chapters of The Dragonbone Chair seemed much better written that its last few pages and far better written than its sequel. (All that said, I so enjoyed Stone of Farewell, the second book, that I am eager to read the third.)
I wonder if the editors stopped caring about the quality of the prose when they realized readers, already engaged in the story, would buy the book anyway. And maybe Williams, ever eager to meet his publisher’s deadline was less concerned about the quality of his prose as he knew he had accomplished his goal–selling the book. All he needed do was finish telling his story. He no longer worried about developing his characters or making the dialogue believable.
Or maybe I’m just expecting too much, comparing his trilogy to Tolkien’s masterpiece. In his series, that great scholar and storyteller took the time to write a moving story and to work out its ancient history. He even had his son craft a calendar so that the phases of the moon in the story corresponded to its cycle while the various characters would see the same aspect of the moon even though they were in different regions of the imaginary realm.
As the books that son published after Tolkien’s death showed, that Oxford don revised his story several times before sending the manuscript to the publisher, making numerous changes and delving more deeply in his characters’ background and their nations’ histories. And his imaginary world’s mythology.
In this series, as in many fantasies that I have read, Williams seems a bit long-winded at times and offers a bit too much interior dialogue, often repeating such dialogue he had put in the minds of other characters. As if they all have the same inner voice. Or is it that he has put himself into each of the characters and imagines how he would react in similar circumstances instead of letting the characters speak for themselves.
Indeed, it seems all the characters have the same voice, only the darker ones just seem to be in a bad mood all the time. And the two wise women, the First Grandmother of the Sithi and the Valada Geloë, seem to be exactly the same.
When the protagonist reaches the community of the long-since dispossessed Sithi, it seems we have entered a New Age commune rather than the refuge of an immortal race.
And there seems to be too much magic. With the exception of the Harry Potter series, it seems that all the great works of imaginative fiction (at least those I’ve read) have only a handful of wizards and others capable of casting spells and otherwise controlling “supernatural” forces.
Such flaws seem to define not just Tad Williams’ trilogy, but much of the fantasy fiction that I’ve read, little differentiation among the characters, wizards and other ancients speaking like New Age gurus, an excess of magic and an absence of character development.
And in this series, there are way too many plotlines. I counted at least 8, probably more, in Stone.
With the exception of the first few chapters, Tad Williams’ books seems more dashed off than thought out. It is as if the story just came to him, and he felt he had to write it out as quickly as possible without letting it (or the character) steep in his unconscious. It just doesn’t have the feel of a story that he worked over once he finished the first draft.
Perhaps I complain to much or maybe I am so critical because I see flaws I want to avoid when I write my own epic. Or maybe my criticism is related to an excuse I may well be making, believing I need let my story steep before I start writing.
All that said, even with the flaws I addressed above, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Williams book and want to know how it turns out. And regret that I couldn’t find the latest book before my return flight.