The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams
New Edition Paperback published by Orbit UK, May 2009; originally published August 1989
Review by Bridie Roman
Simon is a kitchen boy when The Dragonbone Chair begins, mooning around the ancient castle of the Hayholt, doing what most young boys do; avoiding chores whilst putting themselves at risk by climbing things. Soon enough Simon is apprenticed to Doctor Morgenes, a dabbler in all things academic, including magic and alchemy. Simon is dismayed at the fact that he will not be taught magic but instead must take on the arduous task of cleaning Morgenes’ rooms and, even worse, learning to read and write. Simon, however, little realises that the adventures and battles he daydreams of are soon to become his living nightmare. After the death of the benevolent King John, his son Elias is raised to the throne and for some time the kingdom is distracted by the series of tourneys the young king is throwing. But soon the rotten core of Elias’s rule is revealed and Simon finds himself on the run from dark forces that only a select few had ever thought would return to disrupt life in Osten Ard.
There is one particular scene that I wish to share with you, as it really sums up my feelings towards this book; when you first witness Doctor Morgenes’ rooms through the eyes of Simon. The quote below is an attempt to display the study, but it doesn’t quite scratch the surface of the hidden depths of Morgene’s cluttered chambers.
“…the whole chamber seemed much as it usually did – as though a horde of crack-brained peddlers had set up shop and then made a hasty retreat during a wild windstorm.” (Page 20)
That workshop, like this book, is a place so full of wonders and mysteries that it draws you in and makes it so you never want to leave until you’ve seen and understood everything inside it. I opened The Dragonbone Chair and immediately found myself drawn in, desperate to discover all the secrets held inside the pages.
I enjoyed all the characters, although it did take me time to appreciate Simon’s “mooncalf” behaviour, but when I really thought about it I realised that it was fairly normal for a fourteen year old to be a bit clueless and inquisitive. His development through the book really helped endear him to me; watching him grow from a sheltered castle boy to a young man desperately fighting for his life. I was also very amused by Simon’s ally, the small but fearsome Binabik and his wise words of Qanuc wisdom (“When it falls on your head, then you know it’s a rock.”). In fact, the relationship between this odd pair and their equally strange wolf-companion Qantaqa is one of the best parts of this book for me, the strange camaraderie and care they have for each other throughout the book is heart- warming.
One character I hope to see more of in the coming books is the Sitha, Jiriki. This elf-like being goes from a snarling animal, when you first meet him, to fascinating prince later on. His character is a complete enigma, one I personally can’t wait to unravel. Why does he feel the need to associate himself with Simon? How is his fate intertwined with the young hero? The mystery, not only surrounding the character but also his race, is something that you will be pondering for days after finishing the book.
Dark developments later in the book make for nail-biting stuff as the force of High Kind Elias clash with his brother Josua’s armies in the siege of Naglimund. Not only do the battle scenes have a superb tense atmosphere but also become quite brutal after a deadly pact is made. This story line in the book displays to me just why Memory, Sorrow and Thorn played such a large role in influencing the (now in)famous George R.R. Martin. They are epic, full of unexpected twists and turns and the true harshness of a real battle.
My major problem with this book is that I couldn’t even begin to pronounce some of the names/words, and I find this really troublesome while reading, as I end up having to re-read a word several times till I can come up with any semblance of proper pronunciation. Many of you might argue that that is no problem for a reader- after all it is in your head, so I’ll leave it to you to decide. I do, however, like to be able to honour the work by getting my head around names like “Ookequk”.
Another point some readers will bring up with this book is the slow pace for the first hundred pages. Again: a matter of opinion. Whilst I have no problem slowly easing into a new story and a new world I do understand that some prefer action from the get-go. If this is your preference then I advise you not to stay away from this book, but to stick with it; it pays off in the end.
The Dragonbone Chair was first published in 1989; that makes it twenty this year, and it would be quite easy for a novel that old to get lost in the more recent plethora of novels that are currently being raved about. But as a dedicated fantasy fan I feel that this would be a crime. This is a book that to me should be seen as ageless – something that keeps the old traditions of save the world quests and rags-to-riches tales and brings in new ones: epic, dark battles and underhanded politics.
Younger readers wishing to make a start on “adult” fantasy books might want to give Memory, Sorrow and Thorn a go before diving in at the deep end. Not only is it a tidy, finished, trilogy, but it is also a book that doesn’t contain as much of the sex, blood and (lute) rock and roll of more recent “gritty” novels that are increasingly likely to be picked up (on the basis of their popularity right now). It contains all the good staples of a Young Adult novel; innocent teenage romance and a young protagonist trying to find himself whilst finding a mystical item. Clichéd perhaps, but definitely well met with themes of betrayal and war; the staples of a good adult fantasy.
As the first book out of three (four in paperback), I can only hope that the rest of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn can keep me as entertained. The quest continues in The Stone of Farewell, which I am eagerly waiting to read.
Review by Bridie Roman, September 2009