The Witchwood Crown: A much-anticipated return to a classic world

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The Witchwood Crown (Last King of Osten Ard) Kindle Edition by Tad WilliamsTad Williams The Witchwood CrownThe Witchwood Crown by Tad Williams

Tad Williams’ long-awaited return to Osten Ard began with the tasty appetizer that was The Heart of What Was Lost, a bridge novella between the old series and the new. Now the first course of the main feast is here — The Witchwood Crown (2017) — and to be honest, I sort of want to order more appetizer.

Before I get into my reasons for being underwhelmed by The Witchwood Crown, I want to offer up a few caveats. The first is a matter of logistics. It’s rare for me to spend more than two sittings with a book; I greatly prefer fully immersing myself in a story for its entirety, reading start to finish in one go or, if necessary due to length, two at most. But due to circumstances, I couldn’t do that with The Witchwood Crown, and I readily admit that having to read it in more like 7-10 sittings may have colored my response, especially given the structure of the novel. Second, Williams, more than most authors I know, tends to start his series (at least the ones I’ve read) very slowly — easing in, introducing characters, worlds, and story lines, and then meandering around for a while as the plot moves at a slow, some might term it glacial, pace, before eventually picking up. Which doesn’t make my soon-to-come complaint about a meandering plot less accurate, but it does mean that complaint may become moot in book two. So you may want to keep those two cautions in mind as you continue.

As far as that plot. In broad terms it’s basically what one would expect for a sequel trilogy (I’m going to assume anyone picking up The Witchwood Crown has read the earlier trilogy MEMORY, SORROW, & THORN): the defeated evil/villain/adversary is not quite as defeated as everyone thinks, is making noise about rising once again, and a combination of the old familiar folks and some new ones have to stop the “new” threat. More specifically, the Norns or “Hikeda’ya” of the North, vanquished in MEMORY, SORROW, & THORN and forced to retreat into their mountain hideaway, are plotting anew to wipe out the upstart mortals via devious plots, mysterious missions, advice from the dead, assassinations, and the need for the blood of a live dragon.

Meanwhile, in the High Ward, King Simon and Queen Miriamele are finding that their victory over the Norns thirty years earlier didn’t end the world’s problems. There’s a brotherly dispute in their most populous kingdom, Nabban, that threatens to turn into full civil war, a trade dispute between two other factions, rumors of renewed worship of an evil old religion in yet another corner of the wider kingdom, the possibility of war with the grasslanders on their borders, an enigmatic decade’s-long silence from their faerie allies the Sithi, and the continued mystery of Prince Josua’s disappearance, along with his wife and children, years ago. More personally, Simon and Miriamele continue to mourn their own son John Josua’s death due to illness, and are at their wit’s end with regard to their grandson Morgan — heir to the throne and also, unfortunately, a whiny drunkard who seemingly couldn’t be less interested in anything nearing responsibility. Oh, and everyone is getting old and feeling it.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on (and that’s a partial list by the way), which leads to my major issue with The Witchwood Crown; it feels overstuffed. Structurally, I felt there were too many POVs. An incomplete list would include Simon, Miriamelle, Morgan, Tiamak, the Hand of the Throne Count Eolair, the monk Brother Etan, Princess Idela, Chancellor Pasevalles, Jarnulf the self-proclaimed “White Hand,” the grasslanders Fremur and Unver, the Hikeda’ya Lord Viyeki, his mortal slave concubine Tzoja, and their half-blood daughter Nezuru. The characters themselves vary in interest/quality (more on that later), but just from a logistical stance, the number of POVs led to the book feeling like it was constantly stuttering; just as one storyline might start to get interesting, we were off to another. I never felt I got into a smooth reading rhythm.

In terms of characterization, things were pretty hit and miss. Jarnulf, a mortal of mysterious background who has spent years hunting and killing the Norns, is probably the most compelling character thanks to that mysterious background, his intensity (nicely complemented by a dry wit), and the constantly tense situation he finds himself in for most of the novel. For similar reasons, I was also mostly captivated by Nezuru, who as a half-blood is never sure of exactly who she is and the way in which this becomes more, not less, problematic as the novel continues was one of my favorite storylines, especially as it intersected with Jarnulf. It was a pleasure to be reunited with Viyeki; I find his internal voice to be warmly engaging and intellectually stimulating, and I wouldn’t have minded, as with the first two, more time spent with him. Beyond these three the characters ranged from somewhat interesting but not given much to do to weakly or predictably drawn. If things go the usual course (which they of course may not), then we’re shown a drunken, whiny, annoying, self-interested Morgan so as to better appreciate his eventual turnaround. But that still means a lot of pages with a drunken, whiny, annoying, and self-interested person, which pretty much says it all. Simon and Miriamele are pretty pale images of their earlier selves, and though there may be a thematic reason for this, it doesn’t make them any less pale and uninteresting.

Plot has its own issues. There’s the morass of storylines/POVs, not helped by the fact that many are unresolved or involve scenes that don’t always feel they push either narrative or character forward much or at all. A few times the plot necessitates some highly implausible actions (or inaction) or require characters to be a little too oblivious/naive. And much of it feels strangely at a remove, particularly the political aspects, which are sundry. I assume the trade dispute will play a role at some point, but I’m at a loss at the end of this book to figure out why I needed to hear about it. The revival of an ancient evil cult could have led to some serious tension and foreboding, but since we go so long in between mention of it, and rarely ever actually see or feel it, it is bled of much if not all its potential impact. So much of the political plots feel this way, almost like you’re watching someone come into your home and move all your furniture around, but they don’t know you and you don’t know them, they don’t seem to have a sense of “home” and “belongings,” — just “space” and “stuff,” and while you can find everything fine — there’s the couch, the TV’s over there now, etc., you’re not quite sure why it all had to be moved.

The storyline involving Jarnulf and Nezuru is an exception to the above. For the most part it was often taut, tense, and forward-moving. The same is true for the early elements of Viyeki’s plot, though thanks to the preponderance of POVs his story unfortunately loses momentum. The grasslander plot had its moments, but I felt like I’d seen a lot of these scenes/characters before, and it all led eventually to a point I had long earlier predicted. The other storylines similarly had their moments, but the above issues outweighed those occasional scenes.

The prose is smooth and fluid and carries you along easily despite the above issues, even if there are a few tics here and there (such as a braid-tugging level of hand-squeezing) or some repetition. And I quite liked William’s thematic emphasis on aging (though he did hit it a bit too hard and too frequently) and its effects. The same for grief, as many of these characters are mourning loss in their life. And on a grander scale, I’m just glad we’re getting a look at the “what next” phase of the “defeat-the-darkness” that goes beyond simply “Ruh-roh, the darkness is back and darker than ever!” In this case, the way in which all the world’s problems were not swept away by the last grand battle. People are still petty and greedy, economies are still fussy things, you can’t keep a good (or more accurately bad) religion down, and so on.

In the end, as noted at the start, I was underwhelmed with The Witchwood Crown, which was disappointing not just it and of itself, but because I had been so happy with the bridge novella that preceded it. Which I think points to the core issue — length. The overly-long return to Osten Ard is, umm, overly long. I’m not sure how many pages The Witchwood Crown is (I read it on my Kindle), but a serious pruning — not down to the novella’s length, but say a good 20-25% — of pages, and a corresponding reduction in POVs would have gone a long way toward greatly increasing the book’s impact. I’m not saying all those characters need to be dropped, or those storylines, but I do wonder if the novel would have been better served by saving some of them for book two. I guess we’ll see…

~Bill Capossere


Tad Williams The Witchwood CrownI listened to The Witchwood Crown in audio format. Penguin Random House’s audiobook is 38.5 hours long and narrated by Andrew Wincott. Mostly he does an excellent job though I don’t like his hissy voices for most of the faerie characters. It’s hard to think of them as anything but villains with this treatment.

My reaction to this much-anticipated new OSTEN ARD novel is similar to Bill’s in many, but not all, ways. I have recently re-read the entire MEMORY, SORROW, & THORN trilogy and mentioned in my reviews that, though very well written with great characters, the trilogy is excessively long and, these days, I have little patience for stories in which young male orphans ramble around a medieval countryside with a sword for hundreds of pages. But, that’s me. Assuming that readers who are excited about The Witchwood Crown are those that have read and enjoyed MST, I think they won’t mind this length at all and, in truth, I feel that the pace of this latest novel is, while languid, still more sprightly than the previous novels (recall that the To Green Angel Tower audiobook was 63 hours long!).

As Bill mentioned, there are too many POVs in The Witchwood Crown and some are less interesting than others. I was a bit disappointed that the main threat is the same as that in the earlier trilogy (“we thought we had pushed those pale-skinned things back into the mountains for good and now it’s going to start all over again”).

I didn’t dislike Prince Morgan (who “does not favor sobriety”) as much as Bill did, but it was a close thing. I could feel Williams treading carefully here so as not to annoy the reader with Morgan’s drunkenness, lechery, and shallow personality. Morgan has some redeeming qualities and I expect that we’ll be seeing more of them in the next novel. But I also hope that his little sister takes on a larger role… By the way, Wincott, the audiobook narrator, did a really nice job with these two characters.

I think most of Tad Williams’ fans will be pleased with The Witchwood Crown. It’s exactly the kind of long detailed epic they expect with a lot of nostalgic reminiscing. This first novel in this new trilogy (?) sets up a host of old and new characters who each have their own part to play in the unfolding drama. There are a few excellent scenes, including one involving a mother dragon that I’m not likely to ever forget. Some important mysteries are solved by the end of The Witchwood Crown (and a couple of those surprises were predictable, as Bill mentioned, though still exciting), but many remain and I look forward to discovering the answers in the next installments.

~Kat Hooper

Publication date: June 27, 2017. New York Times-bestselling Tad Williams’ ground-breaking epic fantasy saga of Osten Ard begins an exciting new cycle! • Volume One of The Last King of Osten Ard. The Dragonbone Chair, the first volume of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, was published in hardcover in October, 1988, launching the series that was to become one of the seminal works of modern epic fantasy. Many of today’s top-selling fantasy authors, from Patrick Rothfuss to George R. R. Martin to Christopher Paolini credit Tad with being the inspiration for their own series. Now, twenty-four years after the conclusion of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, Tad returns to his beloved universe and characters with The Witchwood Crown, the first novel in the long-awaited sequel trilogy, The Last King of Osten Ard. More than thirty years have passed since the events of the earlier novels, and the world has reached a critical turning point once again. The realm is threatened by divisive forces, even as old allies are lost, and others are lured down darker paths. Perhaps most terrifying of all, the Norns—the long-vanquished elvish foe—are stirring once again, preparing to reclaim the mortal-ruled lands that once were theirs….

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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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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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2 comments

  1. Kevin S. /

    MST is one of my favorite fantasy series. I cant wait to dig in to The Witchwood Crown!

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