When authors return to a much loved setting many years later it can be as much a cause for alarm as celebration but Tad Williams is doing just that, 24 years after the hardback release of To Green Angel Tower, the final volume in his Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series. The Heart of What Was Lost is Tad Williams long awaited return to the world of Ostern Ard, and I’ve been itching to get my hands on the book since it was announced.
I can still remember reading the original series for the first time. Born in 1975, I turned 18 when To Green Angel Tower came out and remember feeling exceptionally excited for a multitude of reasons, not least just how young Tad Williams was- 36 at the time of publication in 1993- with a whole life time to write wonderful books ahead of him.
Although I have the entire Otherworld series in hardback (a mainstay of Christmas’ and birthdays from ’96 onwards) and absolutely adore The War of the Flowers, it was always the lack of any more Osten Ard that disappointed me slightly. I remember at the time Williams said if he did return to his fictional world, it would probably be for a collection of short stories but that never came about.
Time passed and over the course of those intervening years I have read a great many fantasy books and series, ranging from the Wheel of Time, to the entire Malazan series (offshoots included), Joe Abercrombie, George RR Martin, Patrick Rofuss, Scott Lynch, Brandon Sanderson, JV Jones and many others.
There were (and still are) a few series I return to every few years for a re-read and Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is one of those. The main other series are the first two Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever if you’re interested to know.
When I found out in early 2014 that Tad Williams would be returning to the world of what I still think of as my favourite series, I was rather happy.
Being a naturally pessimistic person, I was also a bit worried, as I mentioned right at the start. I said above that the first two Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are also among my favourite fantasy series. The second chronicles, finished in 1983, read by a very precocious me in 1986 (at the age of 11!), had a natural finish and at the time Donaldson said they were done, and he was done with The Land. 21 years later, he returned for the Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.
They should have been great. Perhaps they were but I didn’t enjoy them nearly as much as the preceding two trilogies, or the Mordant’s Need duology, or even the GAP cycle. The reason the series failed for me is complex; a mixture of me being a very different person to who I was 20 years ago, and knowing the Land so well that I didn’t like (or approve, if that matters) with the time twisting aspect of the story.*
So it was with this in the back of my mind, I picked up a hardback copy of The Heart of What Was Lost, which is definitely not the first book in a new series set in Ostern Ard. Instead, The Heart of What Was Lost takes place between the end of the story in To Green Angel Tower and before the epilogue, which is set several years later. It is in effect a tying of loose ends and a “warm up” to a new series proper, which begins in the summer with the release of The Witchwood Crown, continuing the story of Simon and Miri 30 years later. It’s fitting then, that as I’ve grown up, so Simon and Miri have grown up too and it shall be fascinating to see what adventures they have had in the intervening time and will have going forwards.
The story for The Heart of What Was Lost picks up with Duke Isgrimnur at his gruff best at the head of a force of Rimmersmen pursuing the fleeing Norns back across the North towards Nakkiga after their defeat at A’sua, the Hayholt. The immediate good news is the style and characters work well. It doesn’t feel like someone revisiting a story over 20 years later, there is no jarring change in prose and Isgrimnur is definitely Isgrimnur in soul as well as name. This is the biggest complement that Williams can really be paid and it bodes well for the forthcoming trilogy.
An interesting choice from William’s sees parts of the story told from the viewpoint of the Norns. As I finished my latest re-read of Memory Sorrow and Thorn in early December, I can still easily visualise the White Foxes savagery. From the sack of Naglimund onward, they have been things of horror and revulsion.
Although the parts told from their perspective are well written, and they show an other-worldliness similar to the Sithi, (even when Viyeki, a pleasant enough fellow from what we see of him to this point, hatches a plan to kill Floki, a Rimmersman they capture, and put his body into a huge sarcophagus, set fire to it all and shove it down a hill into Isgrimnur’s army), the Norns don’t come across as either wicked or sadistic in the same sense they did in the preceding trilogy. I suppose it’s the fact that we have chapters from the Norn point of view that “humanises” them to a degree- the worst enemy is an unknowable enemy after all.
On the other hand, the Norns are obviously the cousins of the Sithi, so it would be strange to think that the parting of the families saw them change everything they did dramatically- they would still presumably have culture, society, bureaucracy and so on, it’s just what the reader has been exposed to up to this point is part of the Storm King’s influence over Utuk’ku, the Norn Queen, and the war on mortals and hasn’t shown the society that the armies are drawn from. I have a suspicion that William’s has done something very clever here but it’s going to take me a re-read and a while to digest it properly. It is bound to be a little jarring to suddenly see things from the baddies perspective.
I am a happy soul. A very happy soul. I never thought the day would come when William’s would revisit the best fantasy world I’ve visited but that day has come, even if the last couple of years since the announcement have been an agonising wait. Thank you Mr Williams!
The Heart of What Was Lost is out now in hardback & Kindle, and on Audible. If you haven’t read Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, you should, if you haven’t read Memory Sorrow and Thorn in twenty years, you can pick this up and carry on from where you left off. The new trilogy is due to start with The Witchwood Crown in late June. Heck, if you compare the relative writing speeds of George RR Martin and Tad Williams, I have every expectation that Williams’ new series, the Last King of Ostern Ard, will be finished before A Song of Ice and Fire, which was itself partially inspired by Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn in the first place. That would be ironic wouldn’t it?
* If you must know, I thought the introduction of the Insequent rendered a lot of what occurred in the first two series pointless- the Elohim, previously held up as the embodiment of Earthpower, had equally powerful contemporaries who somehow we’d never heard or seen in six books and a novella.