Tuesday, January 17, 2017
The Heart Of What Was Lost - Tad Williams
The novel takes place in the far north of Osten Ard. Here, a contingent of the heroic army last seen in the previous series fighting off invaders and preventing the end of the world, are chasing down the surviving enemy forces from that battle. The enemy are the “Norns” - a long lived people, with almost supernatural speed and resilience. They’re desperately falling back to a mountain stronghold in the icy north, attempting to ensure both their own survival and that of their beleaguered people. Of course, as the text makes clear, the Norns started this fight in the first place, and they have a penchant for guerrilla warfare, torture and blood sacrifice, so they’re not exactly the plucky underdogs. The army chasing them has a very Norse feel to it –and features a couple of recurring characters. Williams manages to build a believable frozen landscape – watching the Norns flit through the mud, and their more numerous opponents trudge relentlessly after them, you can feel the forest and steam coming off the pages. There’s also some time spent in the Norn city of Nakkiga, an imposing metropolitan nightmare; the Norns also get some time in front of the camera; previously they were really faceless antagonists, dervishes of spiteful destruction. Here they lose a little of that mystique, but make up for that loss with some cultural depth and a sense of their extensive, tragic history.
The army of humanity is determined to avenge the attacks on their homes, and they’re led by Isgrimnur. Having lost a son to the Norn, he isn’t overly inclined to give them mercy, and there’s an interesting struggle of character here, as he chases down the Norn, with both sides doing things they’re not proud of. Theres an interesting tension there – both sides internally decrying the others as monsters, indeed as Other – and so justifying their own atrocities, in a dreadful cycle of vengeance. Isgrimnur struggles with this, with whether or not genocide is his only option, or just the easiest tool to hand – and that struggle gives his pieces of the narrative a great sense of tension, a feeling of an army sat a knife edge from going somewhere it can’t return from.
The Norn that we see are from several different positions in their social ladder – builders, soldiers and sharp politicians. The main focus is on one of the Builder caste, who is slowly dragged into the political machinations of those around him. Here the character is status conscious, cautious, with an intelligence which sparkles through in dialogue – his growing awareness of the undercurrents of Norn society provides a great deal of insight, and lets us see one of the Norn struggling to make something of themselves, within the constraints of their society.
As novels go, this is actually rather short – and much of the plot is focused around the journey. For the army of humanity, this is a stern chase, a slog to fend off a danger before it has a chance to regain strength. For the Norn, it’s a march of survival. There’s some moments of kinetic, well crafted hand to hand combat, and the sketchings of a larger siege, which play on the imagination of the reader – sappers digging in the dark, huge gates assaulted by a similarly massive ram, and so on. But there’s quieter moments – laconic dialogue between squad members slowly being hardened or broken by war, friendships created and destroyed at the toss of a dice. Sometimes the prose felt a little laboured, but as the narrative continued, it became increasingly hard to put down.
This is definitely a bridge between the old Osten Ard series and the new one coming out later this year. For old fans, it’ll serve as a welcome return to Osten Ard, albeit a slightly darker version than I recalled, and a solid taster for the new series to come. For new readers, it’s a decent introduction – though you might be better served going through the original series first.