A High Fantasy with All Your Old Friends: The Witchwood Crown by Tad Williams

Like most people who grow up to be writers, I was a pretty weird kid. It will perhaps not entirely surprise you to learn that I was not a popular child; I spent the majority of my elementary-school recesses looking for dragons in the woods alone. I dressed as Raistlin three Halloweens in a row. I was certain that magic slumbered within me—not sleight of hand, but the real weather-altering enemy-smiting fireball-hurling stuff—waiting patiently for me to find the key to unlocking it. Other children were not kind to me, so I kept reading. There’s not a single doorstop-sized fantasy epic published between The Sword of Shannara and Sunrunner’s Fire that I haven’t read at least once (when I realized, belatedly, that this predilection was not endearing me to my peers, I took to disguising the telltale sword-and-naked-lady covers of my preferred reading material with a reusable cloth book cover; this concession, however, did not make me popular).

Tad Williams’ first novel, Tailchaser’s Song, was published in 1985. It follows the adventures of Fritti Tailchaser, a young feral cat whose love interest, Hushpad, disappears suddenly and mysteriously. Fritti’s search for his beloved takes him through multiple cats’ societies, a magnificently creepy underground city ruled by a diabolically Rabelaisian cat-god whose throne is a mountain of dying animals, legendary cat heroes in disguise, a kingdom of squirrels, and a complex and extensive cats’ mythology complete with creation stories and a family of cat deities. I read it so many times as a kid that my copy’s covers literally fell off. I can still quote parts of it from memory. When Williams’ next book came out in 1989, I was more than ready. I was obsessed.

The Dragonbone Chair isn’t about cats, but it’s so marvelously complex and vivid that my ten-year-old self was willing to overlook this flaw.

The first in the planned Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy that would later go on to overspill its banks—the third volume, To Green Angel Tower, is so massive that the paperback edition was released in two volumes—The Dragonbone Chair tells the story of Simon, a rather Fritti-like young kitchen scullion in the castle of Prester John, the High King of Osten Ard. Simon doesn’t stay a kitchen boy for long; shortly after Prester John’s death, his heir, Elias, briskly sets about making pacts with the devil (in this case, the supernatural undead very bad Storm King, who is a Sithi, Williams’ elf equivalent), employing a deranged priest/warlock with a taste for human sacrifice and a lot of sinister hobbies, and getting some wars started, all of which require Simon to rise to a variety of occasions including but not limited to frolicking in the woods with the Sithi, befriending a wolf and her troll custodian, killing a dragon, unearthing enchanted swords, allying himself with Elias’ rebel brother, Prince Josua, and defeating armies of evil hellbent on the destruction of the human race. Hijinx ensue, for something like four thousand pages. Simon does turn out (thirty-year-old spoiler alert) to be secret royalty, as one does in these sorts of novels, but for most of the series he’s just bumbling along, making about fifty mistakes a page, whining about his tribulations, wishing he had a snack, and doing his best to deal with a world gone suddenly terrifying. He is human, relatable, frequently annoying, and eminently easy to identify with if you are twelve-year-old weirdo who would way rather be fighting evil armies than getting gay-bashed in sixth period. Out of all the books that kept me going during the brutal misery of elementary and middle school, The Dragonbone Chair is the only one I’ve returned to as an adult, and the only one that takes me back immediately to that sense of breathless wonder that suffused my childhood reading; like Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, or Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, it’s a book I’ve read so many times, and started reading so young, that its characters feel more like childhood friends of mine than somebody else’s invention.

I lost interest in epic fantasy before Williams finished publishing the Memory, Sorry, and Thorn books; whatever muscle drove me through series after thousand-page-series of dragons and magic and princesses atrophied, and I took to carrying Derrida around instead (I know). Dragons were not cool, even for someone whose new project of being cool was rooted in not caring whether people thought I was cool, but I had also outgrown them. I’ve never gone back to reading high fantasy, though I do love me some vampires and goth fairies. And yet I just about lost my mind with excitement when I learned that Williams was publishing a follow-up series to Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, starting this year with The Witchwood Crown. I WANT TO SEE ALL MY OLD FRIENDS! I thought. HOW IS BINABIK DOING! IS QANTAQA STILL A VERY GOOD WOLF! WHAT HAS THAT RASCAL DUKE ISGRIMNUR BEEN UP TO! LET ME GUESS: THE NORNS AREN’T ACTUALLY ALL THAT DEFEATED!

And lo: I was not disappointed. The Witchwood Crown reads like a high-school reunion that I actually wanted to attend. Everyone you know and love has shown up and is catching up over the snacks table! (Except for Qantaqa, alas; Binabik rides one of her descendants, who is charming but nowhere near so memorable.) The Norns are still really, really bad! This time they’re so bad even some of the Norns think the Norns are bad! They still want to eradicate the human race! There are persons with dubious motivations, persons who are Not What They Seem, several quests, enchanted objects of great import, more dragons, palace intrigue, armies running around, a super-evil Norn Queen with a very cool outfit and palace situation, and Williams’ trademark orchestra pit’s worth of characters and peoples and plotlines and motivations and good jokes and terrifying setpieces for villainy. I read the whole thing in three days (I have a long commute). I inhaled it. I want the next one! Are you reading this, Tad Williams? WRITE FASTER! SEND ME THE GALLEY!

Reviewing The Witchwood Crown feels a little silly, to be honest. If you like this kind of stuff, you’re going to love it. If you liked The Dragonbone Chair, you’re going to love it. The main little boy this time around is Simon and his wife Miriamele’s grandson, Morgan, who’s significantly more insufferable a central character than Simon was, but is thankfully offset by any number of memorable and wonderful and funny and devious characters. There is, as previously, a minimum of sexual assault (bless you, Tad Williams) and an abundance of smart, interesting, complicated, and well-developed women. The characters based on indigenous peoples and non-Western nationalities are not racist clichés. Nobody gets raped in order to become a Strong Female Character. I am sure there are a great many obsessive fans who will put a lot of time into ferreting out minute inconsistencies and detailing them on Geocities-era websites—they’re those sorts of books—but I cannot imagine The Witchwood Crown’s reviews will otherwise be anything less than glowing.

But what got me the most about this new one, the thing that felt the best, was not the book’s considerable literary merits but its power to muffle the outside world for the time it took me to read it. The real world, right now, is a place that is rapidly approaching insupportable. While I wrote this review, police officers pulled disabled people out of their fucking wheelchairs as they protested the decimation of the Affordable Care Act outside Mitch McConnell’s office; Seattle police shot Charleena Lyles, a black woman who called 911 to report an intruder, in front of her children; the police officer who murdered Philando Castile was acquitted; Muslim teenager and activist Nabra Hassanen was beaten to death for wearing a hijab; protestors in London organized a “day of rage” march in the wake of the deaths of potentially hundreds of poor, working-class, and immigrant people in a fire in the Grenfell Tower apartment block; that was just the last three days.

It’s a hard time to be alive and a hard time to be fighting in solidarity with other vulnerable and marginalized people facing down a regime that is actively trying to kill us, to strip us wholesale of our rights and bodily autonomy and access to healthcare and wealth and security and basic safety and housing and, and, and. The villains of The Witchwood Crown aren’t morally bankrupt plutocrats backed by a massive propaganda machine plundering a country to top off their over-stuffed pockets. They’re evil. They follow the rules of evil in fantasy novels. They’re not taking away anybody’s insurance, they just need a magic crown and the end of the human race. You know the logic of Williams’ world, its mechanics, who is a jerk, who is lovable, who is doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, and who will probably turn out tolerable after a good long story arc. The pleasure of a book like this is for me a nostalgic one, a return to that immutable alternate world I inhabited as a child, a world totally removed from the concerns of the actual world I lived in. I looked in books for something like an isolation tank, a story vivid and complete enough to eclipse the cruelty and heartbreak of elementary school, to transport me fully to a place where I, too, had room to become a warrior. A book that gives you a space to rest for a minute feels, these days, like a gift. For a few hours I forgot what it feels like to be human right now; it’s the breath that makes the fight possible. Find it where you can. If you need dragons to get there, you could do a lot worse than these.

The Witchwood Crown is available June 27th from DAW.
Read an excerpt from the novel and get a closer look at Michael Whelan’s cover art here on Tor.com.

Sarah McCarry is the author of three novels: All Our Pretty Songs, a Tiptree Award honoree; the Norton award-nominated Dirty Wings; and the Lambda award-nominated About A Girl.

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