Book Review: The Witchwood Crown by Tad Williams
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of The Last King of Osten Ard
Publisher: DAW (June 27, 2017)
Length: 721 pages
This was a very long, very dense read, but I really don’t mean that in a negative way. Quite the contrary, in fact; it has been a while since I’ve sunk my teeth into an epic fantasy so rich and layered, and it felt incredibly refreshing to fall into a meaty novel like this and just let it consume me completely.
The Witchwood Crown is the start of a new series set in the universe of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy, though I believe it would serve as a decent jumping on point for readers new to the author and his books. This was my first experience with his work and I found I was able to follow the story quite easily, excepting some initial confusion over the lore of Osten Ard and the different inhabitants that make the continent their home. Thankfully, in a lengthy novel like this, there’s plenty of world-building and no shortage of opportunities to catch up on all this information so it wasn’t long before I felt totally at ease in this new setting.
The story continues the story of King Simon and Queen Miriamele from the previous series, having been married for the last thirty years since the conclusion of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. Their grandson Morgan is now the heir apparent, after the death of Simon and Miriamele’s son Prince Josua. With their grief still all too fresh, this causes the aging royal couple to become both overprotective and excessively tough on Morgan, who both yearns for and chafes at the growing responsibilities placed upon his shoulders. Like any young person growing up, he’s trying to find himself but always seems to be getting mixed up into trouble with his rowdy, tavern-hopping friends.
Meanwhile, the realm is in danger once again from a threat long since thought vanquished. The Norns, an immortal elf-like race, are rallying together and preparing for an invasion to reclaim the mortal lands for themselves. After falling into disfavor and becoming a sacrifice, a young half-Norn woman named Nezeru is taken along on a journey to fulfill a mission for their queen, and along the way the group encounters a mysterious warrior named Jarnulf who appears to be much more than he claims to be.
There are a lot of characters involved but I liked how the narrative introduced them all gradually, making it easier to identify the multiple plot threads and determine which perspectives are the important ones. While Simon and Miriamele are characters that I’m only meeting now for the first time, evidently there’s still plenty of growth and development to be had even though they’re both now into their golden years. The two of them are more in love than ever, but the years have also brought certain new life changes and challenges as their priorities have shifted, and most of their disagreements now have to do with their grandson. Speaking of Prince Morgan, he was another important POV character, not to mention one of the more complex and well-written ones. Unlike Simon, who started from humble beginnings as a kitchen scullion, Morgan was born into a royal life and grew up wanting for nothing. In spite of this, he is something of a shiftless and troubled young man who couldn’t be more different than his driven grandfather. And yet there’s something about him that reminds me of a lost and scared little boy, and reading about his self-doubt just makes me want to wrap him up in a big hug.
That said, as a newcomer to this world, I confess it was an interesting experience to be reading the first book of a sequel series, one that I could tell has deep ties to the previous trilogy. While it did not affect my enjoyment overly much, it was at times distracting to be catching little snippets of references to past events and wondering at the full details behind them. The main crux of the story also took a long time to build (for a novel that’s more than 700 pages long, that’s really saying something) and there were rambling sections which I felt could have been trimmed without making too much of an impact on the overall story. Again, this is only my personal opinion as a brand new reader to this world. It’s more than likely that I’m just missing a lot of the nuances, being completely unfamiliar with the events of the previous trilogy, and if you’re an old fan I imagine your experiences will be very different.
At the end of the day though, I think it’s safe to say that no matter who you are, as long as you have a love for rich, multilayered epic fantasy then you will certainly develop a deep appreciation for The Witchwood Crown. It’s a heavy novel, both literally and figuratively, containing robust world-building and character development. Exploring complex themes and conflicts, Tad Williams takes a big-picture look at how several generations deal with problems threatening their kingdom, and while the sheer scope of it can feel a little overwhelming at first, a willingness to invest some time and patience in the story will eventually pay off. I feel like I have a stronger, more confident grasp of the world now, and I look forward to continuing with the next book of the series.