The Dragonbone Chair is the first book in Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series and one of the better traditional epic fantasies that’s out there. The novel follows the young castle scamp Simon an apparently unassuming and unimportant young man who gets drawn into a dire events far beyond his meager station. Apprenticed to the castle doctor Simon spends most of his days dreaming of being a hero but the machinations of an ancient evil soon creep into his own and Simon soon finds himself on the road and on a desperate to uncover the truth behind whats going on. On the way Simon meets a troll (in Williams’ world of Osten Ard and hearty though diminutive folk) who rides a wolf, rescues an elf-like Sithi, a kindly witch, and even manages to fall for a princess. If you’re a fan of epic fantasy and haven’t experienced The Dragonbone Chair it is a wholly familiar affair thought not without its own merits.
The first thing a reader will note about The Dragonbone Chair is its frightfully slow beginnings. The beginning chapters focus very strongly on Simon as he goes about his life at the castle. I imagine the intent here was to get to know both our hero Simon and the major players in the story at large but I’m not certain that Williams entirely succeeds in this. While you certainly get the impression that Rachel (Simon’s mother figure, the castle’s head maid) and Doctor Morgenes care for Simon on some level I never quite felt that the emotional links between Simon and his surrogate parents were quite complete. In today’s day and age I suspect that Simon might have been diagnosed with ADD and his constant distraction and frequent wholesale fall into daydream is actually quite endearing. It takes an awful long time for anything to happen though Williams’ does do well at hinting at both the past and future. Though some of that hinting is left unexplained and unexplored.
Of course inevitable events force Simon to abandon his home. In fact I think that the best part of the novel occurs right after that happens. The Hayholt, the castle where Simon lived, is built on top of and alongside ancient ruins both human and Sithi. As Simon escapes through the underground ruins of castles and natural caverns he experiences visions and more. It comes off as a sort of descent to the underworld and is reminiscent of both Rand’s journey to Emond’s Field with the fevered Tam (The Eye of the World) and Aragorn and Company’s descent through the Path’s of the Dead and I certainly thought it was some of the novel’s strongest writing particularly the strange ceremony Simon stumbles on during the tail end of this journey. The whole section has a darker tone more reminiscent of a horror or suspense movie then an epic fantasy and it was markedly welcome change of pace and the culmination of a growing tension that had infused the chapters leading in Simon’s horrific night.
Williams’ also has an unfortunate tendency towards song and poetry. It isn’t nearly as bad as anything from the Lord of the Rings but I groaned at every snippet of offset text. It wasn’t bad in any sense of the word but as a reader I much prefer my poetry, when it must butt against my prose, neatly contained in epigraphs. I even struggled with the verse segments from the latest Malazan novel and I love that series. In The Dragonbone Chair I found myself more frustrated when it was a song rather then a poem. Music is a composite greater then the some of its parts and excerpting it as lyrics alone deprives it of much of its impact.
The thing that I love most about The Dragonbone Chair is the troll Binabik. There is something undeniably charming about the troll Simon meets in his journeys. Maybe it is a simple as the accent you can almost hear thanks to his somewhat stilted dialogue. Or maybe it is the friendship he develops with Simon over the course of the novel. Whatever it is the scenes with Binabik and Simon really shine and are certainly a joy to read. Though somehwhat of a more cliched nature I also found Simon’s interactions with Miri to be nicely done. It is easy to forget later in the novel how young Simon really is and it nice to have his awkward interactions with a young woman to remind us.
The Dragonbone Chair published in 1988 was released at the height of the epic fantasy craze so the novel can perhaps be forgiven its McGuffins and nebulous big bad evil. The three book structure and familiar tropes are staples of genre and while fantasy has evolved to a certain degree they will remain tropes of the fantasy genre as long as people keep reading. I sometime wonder if the fantasy genre’s focus on world-building is a coping mechanism in order to find a niche within a market filled with similar plots; but I digress. The Dragonbone Chair is still an excellent, albeit initially slow, read that is one of the less talked about series from the heyday of epic fantasy. If you’ve yet to experience Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn for yourself the series as a whole is worth taking a look at though I suspect for the veteran fan it will hold very few surprises.