The Witchwood Crown is the first in a new series of fantasy novels from Tad Williams. I say a new series – it’s a follow up to his existing “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn” series, the last of which came out in the early nineties. That series was thematically complex, and littered with memorable characters. Fans have been clamouring for a return since the original series wrapped up and here, at last, they have it.
Actually, a prequel novel (which we reviewed here) came out earlier this year, which was a direct follow up to the events of “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn”, and set the stage for this new series. I’d say it isn’t necessary to have read that in order to enjoy this new series, but it does provide some valuable context, and an introduction to some characters which turn up again in The Witchwood Crown.
This is a book which deals with the cost of endings, and the price of new beginnings. Which sounds portentous, but isn’t always. This is Osten Ard after the final battle, after the defeat of the Storm King and his minions – usually the point in the movie where the credits roll and the triumphant orchestral music plays. But here we are forty years later. The High Ward of Osten Ard has rumbled on since the wars, and since a kitchen boy married the Princess and took the throne. If things have been quiet, there are still rumblings of discontent. The Hernystiri, old allies of the kingdom, have a new leader of their own, and he seems less than impressed to be living under legends. To the south, the Nabbani, whose empire was quietly subsumed into the Ward before the original series, are indulging in inter-family squabbles and complex scheming that would make a Borgia shudder. To the north, Duke Isgrimnur, the man who drove the Norns back to their mountain fastness, is unwell. The Sithi, immortal survivors of several cataclysms, and related to the Norns, are mysteriously silent. The kingdom feels perhaps a little complacent, busy with internal politics over external concerns. Williams’ prose is as vividly clear as ever, and quickly brings the world of the Hayholt, the icy regions of the north and other environs back to life.
Most interestingly, it also brings us the Norns. In the original series, they were largely faceless demons, a force antithetical to humanity. In the High Ward, there’s a mixture of the strange and the familiar – odl heroes and new blood, straining against the constraints of a familiar paradigm. The Niorns though, they’re something else. Where some of their interactions are familiar, their affection for family, and for their home – it’s often overshadowed by an uncanny feeling. They live in the bowels of a mountain, servants to the seemingly immortal queen who survived the destruction of their semi-mythical homeland, and is their surviving link to it. This has bred a society with a strict sense of duty, a degree of ancestor worship, and a need for control. For each moment of connection with the Norn, there was something else –a quirk of speech, an assumption of superiority, an emotional distance – which successfully marked them as being alike, but other. If the Norn of the past were monsters, these ones are evocatively alien – and no less terrifying for it. Williams has brought an extraordinary and extraordinarily terrible society to life.
The heroes of the original trilogy now occupy the higher echelons of the kingdom(s) in one capacity or another, but forty years on, they’re older, perhaps wiser, and surrounded by a younger generation looking to make its own mark on the world. Readers of the original series will no doubt be delighted to see Simon, Miriamele and the rest of the gang again. If some of those figures – Binabik the troll shaman, Tiamak the swamplander – seem almost unchanged, still there’s the suggestion of years having passed. To new readers, I imagine Simon the high king, the commoner-king, may be a noble if conflicted figure, his patience worn down over years of fighting the same battles, his reactions to his grandson and granddaughter those of love mixed with frustration. In the context of the original series, it’s like seeing a man box with himself. The grandson, Prince Morgan carries the younger Simon’s impulsive and restless nature, and a sense of frustrated purpose – and that feeling is very familiar to those who watched Semoan grow up way back when.
Speaking of Prince Morgan – this one is an absolute joy to read. There’s so much going on. The prince is feckless, yes, and something of a rake – more interested in wine and warm beds than in deciding the fate of kingdoms. But he’s also obviously intelligent, and, given the opportunity to do some good, is likely to do so. There’s hints of darker nuances in his relationship with his father, Simon’s son. But what really struck me was the frustration of growing within the shadow of a great man, being defined in a relationship to someone else, rather than for yourself. The story asks what it would be like to be related to the man who saved the world, and extrapolates from there. Morgan lives within the constraints of his family, and if not desperate to do something more, would still rather be doing something. His relationship with Simon and Miriamele seems to be one of frustrated ambition on all sides (as an aside, watching Simon deal with someone with his own temper was a special delight), but it presents that frustration as part of a layered, complex relationship, a shared history which shapes all parties. It helps that in between all his drinking, Morgan is a sharp, witty individual, and his concerns are often valid, if poorly expressed. I’m really looking forward to seeing what he does next.
The plot – well, there’s rather a lot of world building. It’s necessary, and an interesting read. It helps establish the stakes, I think, when we see the high Ward at peace. But like a pot on the boil, simmering bubbles of conflict begin to appear. In many ways this feels like a book of groundwork, of foundation. It’s fascinating stuff, and there’s riots, murders and mysteries aplenty. The last hundred pages or so really steps up the pace, as the metaphorical pot starts to boil over. I’m struggling to describe things without spoilers, but I’ll say this – if there’s a lot of up-front build up to the narrative, then the payoff by its close is absolutely worth hanging around for.
Is it any good then? Absolutely. If you’re a long term fan coming back for a new look at Osten Ard, you won’t be disappointed. The complex themes, the layered relationships, and the cool magic and swords are all still there, and there’s enough of the old faces mixed in with the new to make it interesting. If you’re coming to the series fresh – well, I’d suggest going back and reading the original first, but I don’t think that you have to; it remains an intriguing, cunningly worked fantasy, and one which will reward a deep reading. In either case, I’d give this one a wholehearted recommendation.