The Heart of What Was Lost: Tad Williams returns to Osten Ard

Readers’ average rating: 

Reposting to include Bill’s new review.

The Heart of What Was Lost by Tad WilliamsThe Heart of What Was Lost by Tad Williams epic fantasy book reviewsThe Heart of What Was Lost by Tad Williams

Note: This review will contain mild spoilers for Tad Williams’ MEMORY, SORROW & THORN trilogy, but please note that it is not necessary to have read MST and, in fact, this novel can stand alone.

There was great rejoicing heard around the world when Tad Williams announced he was returning to Osten Ard. His original OSTEN ARD trilogy, MEMORY, SORROW & THORN, has been popular with epic fantasy fans since the late 1980s. I’m one of those totally devoted fans who read it way back then when I was a young adult. Since then, I’ve been recommending the trilogy to every new fantasy reader I meet (along with Robin Hobb’s FARSEER saga). The plan, apparently, is for Williams to write a new trilogy beginning with The Witchwood Crown which will be released in April 2017. The Heart of What Was Lost, the book I’m reviewing here, acts as a bridge between the two trilogies.

Before picking up The Heart of What Was Lost, I re-read MEMORY, SORROW & THORN which consists of the novels The Dragonbone Chair, The Stone of Farewell, and To Green Angel Tower. As I noted in my reviews, Williams’ worldbuilding was just as wonderful as I remembered, as were his protagonists, but over the years I seem to have lost some of my patience for these long rambling all-immersive fantasy epics. If you’re the type of reader who loves those, I highly recommend MEMORY, SORROW & THORN — it’s one of the best examples.

The Heart of What Was Lost (2016) tells the story of what happened soon after the events in To Green Angel Tower. The human Northmen have been victorious over the evil Norns, a new King and Queen have been crowned at the Hayholt, and all the world is right again. When Duke Isgrimnur and his Rimmersgard soldiers are returning home from the war, they become aware of a remnant of Norns who are fleeing back to their mountain hideout in the North. The men are tired, but they know if they don’t wipe out those Norns now, sometime in the future they’ll have to fight even more of them. The Northmen are set on genocide, and so the chases, sieges, and battles begin.

During the story we get intimate glimpses of a few new characters. One is a boy who, while traveling home, meets a man who would normally be his enemy. But since they are both humans who get caught up in the war on Duke Isgrimnur’s side, they become friends despite their differences. Another is a Norn whose ethics are challenged when he discovers what some of his leaders have done. All of the characters will have to make hard choices, learn important lessons, and suffer devastating losses.

The Heart of What Was Lost, published 23 years after To Green Angel Tower, feels like Williams never left Osten Ard. The writing style, including the characterization, pacing, and worldbuilding, melds perfectly with the previous trilogy. What is different here is the length of the story. To Green Angel Tower was over 1000 pages long while The Heart of What Was Lost is only 224. That’s still novel-length, but it feels more like a 224-page epilogue than a novel. Again, I felt impatient with the slow pace, even as I recognized the excellence in Williams’ craft. Readers who didn’t think that the previous trilogy was bloated, especially the second book, will disagree with me on this. Another issue for me was that human women are notably missing from The Heart of What Was Lost, but I can forgive this since shoehorning some women into this war story would have felt unnatural and simply “token.” I hope and expect that Williams will give us some more modern female protagonists in the upcoming trilogy. After all, fantasy has advanced significantly in that respect since the 1980s.

I listened to the audio version of this story. It’s just under 10 hours long and narrated by Andrew Wincott, who also narrated the previous MEMORY, SORROW & THORN stories. I’ve complained a little about his voices for female characters. This book, however, didn’t challenge him in that way and he gave a wonderful performance.

~Kat Hooper


The Heart of What Was Lost by Tad WilliamsThe Heart of What Was Lost by Tad Williams epic fantasy book reviewsIt’s been a long, long time since I’ve read Tad Williams’ classic masterpiece MEMORY, SORROW, AND THORN, so I don’t recall much save that I absolutely loved it. Which meant I had mixed feelings when I heard he’d be returning to that universe. One response was, “Great — more books in a series I loved!” Another response was, “Great — more books in a series I loved a long time ago, which means I have to reread them.” And as is typical in these situations, I also worried that if I did reread those earlier books, they wouldn’t hold up, thus adding one more item to my list of things that aren’t as good as the gild of nostalgia led me to believe (I’m looking at you Time Tunnel, mini powdered donuts, and all-nighters).

Well, I haven’t yet pulled the trigger on the reread (mostly because those books are massive and I now have more of a life than I once did), but I have returned to Osten Ard in the form of The Heart of What Was Lost, a slim bridge novel meant to carry the reader over from the original series to the new one. Given that The Heart of What Was Lost is a single and mostly stand-alone novel, and a much, much smaller one at that, I didn’t have the same fully realized immersion in a world as I recall with the first series. But I happily settled right into the world, the situation, the characters, and the language, which I’d say bodes well for the larger step into the upcoming new series, THE LAST KING OF OSTEN ARD.

While it would obviously help to have read the prior books, Williams does a nice job in presenting The Heart of What Was Lost in such a manner that it isn’t essential. It’s quite quickly made clear that humans and this world’s version of elves (Norns) have just fought a shattering war that ended in victory for the humans, though the losses were staggering on both sides. The situation as it now stands is that the last remnants of the Norn army are making a desperate flight to their remote mountain city, hard-pressed by an exhausted war-weary band of humans trying to bring this conflict to a final conclusion, even if that means wiping out the Norns completely. Not just the surviving soldiers, but all of them back in their city as well. Would it help to know the full background of the war, or the backstories of the several characters who return here, such as the human commander Isgrimnur and his friend/aide Sludig? Sure, but we learn enough here and in Isgrimnur’s case especially, more than enough to find him a character we root for and care about.

We get to see both sides of the war. On the mortal side, we focus on Isgrimnur — leader of this army and a powerful duke, but we also get the war from a common soldier’s point of view via two other characters: Porto, a husband and father from the south, and Endri, a young fighter from the same home city whom Porto takes under his more experienced wing. On the other side, we’re privy to the thoughts of the Norn Viyeki, a “Builder” or engineer who stands as prime assistant or second-in-command to the Builder’s old and influential caste leader.

Despite the brief time spent with these characters, the whole book is just over 200 pages long, there’s a surprising deep sense of intimacy with both Viyeki and Porto, who offer up not just different sides of the war, but different personal situations as well, with Viyeki the self-doubting, nervous junior wanting to please his tough superior/mentor and Porto presented as the opposite — the older, more experienced, more worldly veteran to the younger, more naïve, more anxious Endri.

In more general fashion, the dual human/Norn point of view adds a wonderful richness to the story, as does the variety of perspectives that arise among the two sides. Both sides have characters who dream of annihilating the other side, both have characters who seek personal vengeance for losses, both have characters who see the continuation of conflict as horrible but necessary to survival, and both have (fewer) characters who are weary of constant war and killing and might (might) consider other endings. Their different contexts also add spice to the narrative stew — the Norns making a final, desperate, passionate dash to their home city in hopes of saving their race; the humans reluctantly, bitterly giving slow chase into remote, cold lands ever farther from home and family.

Williams gives us, even in the short span of this novel, a nice balance of action and introspection, conflict and conversation, moving seamlessly from one to the other, never staying to long in one mode. As a fully stand-alone novel, there may not be quite enough here to satisfy some. But since it isn’t a fully stand-alone novel, that’s not an issue. For those who haven’t read the original series, The Heart of What Was Lost will serve as an efficient and effectively compelling introduction to this world, its people, its conflicts and themes. Less the second course and more the appetizer, so to speak. On the other hand, if one has read MEMORY, SORROW, AND THORN recently, the new book is an excellent bridge, reintroducing you to character and plot as well as reminding you in smaller form of everything you liked about the larger first series. And for those of us who read it when it first came out and who recall only how much we thirsted for each book as they arrived? Set aside some budgeted time; you’ll most likely want to go back and reread them. And they are not just over 200 pages. Not at all. Damn you, Tad Williams.

~Bill Capossere

Published January 3, 2017. New York Times-bestselling Tad Williams’ ground-breaking epic fantasy saga of Osten Ard begins an exciting new cycle! The perfect introduction to the epic fantasy world of Osten Ard, The Heart of What Was Lost is Tad Williams’ follow-up to his internationally bestselling landmark trilogy. Osten Ard inspired a generation of modern fantasy writers, including George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, and Christopher Paolini, and defined Tad Williams as one of the most important fantasy writers of our time. A NOVEL OF OSTEN ARD. At the end of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, Ineluki the Storm King, an undead spirit of horrifying, demonic power, came within moments of stopping Time itself and obliterating humankind. He was defeated by a coalition of mortal men and women joined by his own deathless descendants, the Sithi. In the wake of the Storm King’s fall, Ineluki’s loyal minions, the Norns, dark cousins to the Sithi, choose to flee the lands of men and retreat north to Nakkiga, their ancient citadel within the hollow heart of the mountain called Stormspike. But as the defeated Norns make their way to this last haven, the mortal Rimmersman Duke Isgrimnur leads an army in pursuit, determined to end the Norns’ attacks and defeat their ageless Queen Utuk’ku for all time. Two southern soldiers, Porto and Endri, joined the mortal army to help achieve this ambitious goal—though as they venture farther and farther into the frozen north, braving the fierce resistance and deadly magics of the retreating Norns, they cannot help but wonder what they are doing so very far from home. Meanwhile, the Norns must now confront the prospect of extinction at the hands of Isgrimnur and his mortal army. Viyeki, a leader of the Norns’ military engineers, the Order of Builders, desperately seeks a way to help his people reach their mountain—and then stave off the destruction of their race. For the two armies will finally clash in a battle to be remembered as the Siege of Nakkiga; a battle so strange and deadly, so wracked with dark enchantment, that it threatens to destroy not just one side but quite possibly all. Trapped inside the mountain as the mortals batter at Nakkiga’s gates, Viyeki the Builder will discover disturbing secrets about his own people, mysteries both present and past, represented by the priceless gem known as The Heart of What Was Lost. 

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who’s been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the “Notable Essays” section of Best American Essays. His children’s work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he’s not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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3 comments

  1. I have to be honest, the idea of a fantasy book that I don’t have to pick up with a forklift sounds really appealing right about now. :)

  2. Kevin S. /

    I think this book just went to the top of my reading list. I love the MST books.

  3. Kevin S. /

    Read The Heart of What Was Lost and LOVED it. I’m biased because the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn books are my favorite epic fantasy series. This book served it’s purpose well. It comes after the end of the trilogy and transitions to the next trilogy, which I can’t wait to read.

    I really enjoyed how Williams reveals the POV of the Rimmersmen and the Norns who are at war with each other. Both sides view the other as the reason for the war. They hate each other and have no trust for the other side. As a military veteran, this was something that I often thought about while carrying out my own duties. Is the other guy just like me? What if he/she had been raised in America and I had been raised in their country?? Williams leaves it open as to who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys”. Perhaps there is no answer.

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  1. News Round-up #5 | Tad Williams - […] Kat Hooper reviews the audio book production of The Heart of What Was Lost for Fantasy Literature here. […]

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