Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams

I've had Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow and Thorn novels sitting on my to-read shelf for years. They are so long that I always put them off in order to read shorter things first. I was really looking forward to them, though, since I had read a short story by Williams set in the same realm of Osten Ard. This short story was called The Burning Man, and it is one of my favorite shorts ever. I even read it twice and plan on reading it again soon. It can be found in the Legends short story collection.

I'm almost finished with the first book of the series, The Dragonbone Chair. It is slightly disappointing to me, in that the short story really highlighted so many elements that I love in fantasy, while this novel has mixed those elements that I love with other elements that I cannot stand. For instance, changing trolls into tiny people. Sorry, but for me trolls are big, hulking monsters. We already have tiny people, whether they be gnomes, dwarves, or leprechauns. Also, I really didn't enjoy him using Inuit-sounding names and words for the trolls. Finally, he has elves in his book, but decides that it is somehow more original to call them Sithi rather than simply call them what they are. I don't mind the word 'Sithi', but it always bugs me when someone decides to simply give a new name to something we are already familiar with.

It doesn't bother me at all that relatively little happens for the first hundred pages or so. I am one who enjoys world building and character development, so this was fine with me. Reading this book, I keep seeing elements that I saw in Martin's ASOIAF series, and since this came out shortly before Martin began writing his series, I can't help but think that Martin was influenced by Williams to a degree. Martin does it all much better, though.

What elements do I see as similar between Martin and Williams? Some may seem farfetched, but here they are:

1. The coming of an unusual winter is a strong theme in the story.
2. A very unusual throne, i.e. made of blades with Martin, made of dragon bones and skull in Williams.
3. Major lord character losing a hand.
4. Wolf character playing a major role.
5. A character that is the 'Hand of the king' in both stories.
6. A sword named 'Needle' in each.

There are other similarities that kept striking me as I read, but none as clear to me as those listed. (Some are simply standard fantasy tropes, so no big deal that they are in both.)

I don't mind if Martin got ideas for his epic from Williams. The stories are very different, and Martin took everything to a much higher level. I'll always be grateful he wrote his series. Now, I may have only given Williams three stars so far at Good Reads, but I will continue on and hope that he gets better as the series progresses.


  1. ohman! it's tricksy reviewing a book you have mixed feelings about! i hope you enjoy the further books more! :)

  2. I made a good attempt at those books recently. I finished the first two but gave up part way through the third. It was just way too long and as a mother of four my reading time is precious. So I skipped ahead and read a bit of the climax to see whether the payout was going to be worth it and it just wasn't. One of the most unsatisfying conclusions I've ever come across.

    "Sithi" is obviously supposed to be reminiscent of "Sidhe", the fairy people of Irish legend.

    I wouldn't say that Martin got ideas from Williams. After all, "after this therefore because of this" is a logical fallacy. More likely they were influenced by the same source material. The loss of a hand, in particular, is a very popular motif in mythology and legend.

  3. You're so tough on these guys, Ted! I haven't read this one, so I can't say.

  4. I enjoyed the series but I think I liked the Otherland series better. I did not care for War of the Flowers. He has a new series out called Shadowmarch but I haven't read it yet.

  5. Martin is certainly influenced by Williams but he's got his own soap opera thing going on and I honestly doubt whether or not George actually knows what he's doing in his story at this point. I think he's a total pantser and he's now got a hundred characters and trying to write seat of the pants style (which is why it takes him five years per book).

  6. I'm a huge fan of Tad Williams. Doesn't bother me that the trolls are teensy, or that they're Inuit-ish. Nor does it bug me that the elf-like characters are called sithi (as Sarah noted above, it's almost guaranteed to be derived from the Irish sidhe). The only thing that bugs me in that series is the overuse of the coincidence fairy. She shows up one time too often for my taste.

    That said, it's STILL one of my favorite fantasy series of all time. Just look at the way Williams uses the hyphenated adjective, his attention to scent as a descriptor, the lushness of his writing! I dig. I dig very much.

    Hope you make it through the next two books, good sir! They're well worth your time.