Monday, June 05, 2006

The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams
Are you looking for a pure fantasy novel/series – adventure, magic, strange creatures, escapism? Are you not interested in (or need a break from) the ‘new weird’, magical realism, post-modern works of SF literature filled with weighty themes and ideas? The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams might be exactly what you’re looking for.

The Dragonbone Chair is standard fantasy, full of just about all of the clichés. We have an adolescent male of mysterious (and probably ‘special’) origins, guided by a wise old ‘wizard’, who is thrown into harrowing circumstances beyond his control and understanding. We have the death of a loved monarch, the replacement with a lesser leader, and the advice of an evil sorcerer. There is a greater ‘dark lord’ of sorts, and we have elves, trolls, giants, and other fantastical creatures. Yes, the parallels to Tolkien and other fantasy authors are real, but the story is well done and all its own, even if not terribly original in its basic premise.

The above description can be taken as bad or good depending on your point of view. Many people are looking for exactly what Tad Williams offers us with The Dragonbone Chair, which is the first installment of the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy. This is an adventure story – a tale of magic, journey, coming of age, love, hate, and the fate of a world – or another way to look at it, this is the kind of story that made you fall in love with fantasy in the first place. Yes, this tale could be considered ‘young adult’ (though it’ll be shelved in the SF section at bookstore), but it can easily be enjoyed at more advanced ages.

The Dragonbone Chair is the story of Simon, and orphan scullion-boy working in the castle serving as the center of the Osten Ard kingdom. Simon is apprenticed to the castle’s doctor Morgenes in a time when the old king John dies and is succeeded by his son, Elias. Elias brings along his dark advisor, Pyrates, who has forged an alliance with a greater evil. The land is in turmoil and Simon forced into a journey with great implications in the greater conflict. The end brings little conclusion, as journey continues in The Stone of Farewell and concluded in To the Green Angel Tower, which was divided into parts 1 and 2 for the paperback.

One advantage of the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy is that it is finished and has been for some time. So those of us tired of having more and more unfinished series on our reading stacks don’t need to fear yet another addition. Another advantage is the wide-range of audience this book is appropriate for – children through adults can enjoy alike (though the books are quite lengthy for younger readers).

Tad Williams has a reputation for slow starts, and after reading The Dragonbone Chair, I have to agree. The beginning is slow-paced and could easily have been tightened significantly. This will be a hurdle for some readers, though the pace picks up significantly later and becomes the adventure anticipated. The writing is a standard fair, with a few mixed-metaphors and marginal characterization – the main characters are decently well-done, with supporting characters less-so. As with many fantasies of this type, strong female characters are a bit lacking.

Caveats aside, I enjoyed The Dragonbone Chair and look forward to continuing the story to its conclusion. While the story is ‘standard’, it is entertaining and just fun to read. On my 10-point rating scale (described in detail here), The Dragonbone Chair rates a 6.5-7. Fans of standard, epic, sword and sorcery style fantasy will love this book and it’s a great introduction to genre for teens, but readers looking for ‘more’ out of their books and something new will probably prefer to pass it by.

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