I’ve written previously about the time commitment you often need to make if you want to read the fantasy genre. There are almost no standalone novels; thanks to Tolkein, the trilogy is the standard form, but many writers take things to extremes and write trilogies of trilogies, or, worse, simply carry on way past the point they should have stopped. The Wheel of Time (which I have not read, but quite enjoyed on Amazon Prime) is 14 books; Katherine Kerr’s Deverry series is 16 books. Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings series is five ‘trilogies’, one of which has four books in it. George R R Martin originally planned 8 books for A Song of Ice and Fire, but a couple of those have already been published as two volumes, so you could count differently.
In the summer of 2018, I read the first volume in the Memory Sorrow and Thorn Trilogy by Tad Williams. It was on a 99p deal. I found it quite engaging, although it didn’t grab me by the throat. On balance, I decided to leave it there and not seek out the others.
This is an odd feeling, because if you’ve read volume one of a fantasy trilogy, you haven’t got anything like a satisfactory ending, all you’ve got are plot threads left hanging. On the other hand, you’ve saved yourself an enormous amount of time, and everybody knows that endings are hardly ever satisfactory anyway. Generally, a long running series will just peter out.
Anyway, here we are in 2022 and there was the second volume of the trilogy, on sale for 99p. And knowing I needed a lot of reading matter this summer, and being mostly off contemporary science fiction, I went for it. Do I regret the purchase? Yes, yes I do.
First thing, props to Tad Williams for including a detailed summary of the previous book at the beginning. Unfortunately, this didn’t help me much, and I’m still wondering who most of the characters are because I find that I don’t remember the first book at all. I know I read it, but once I decided I was’t going to bother with the rest, I wiped my brain’s hard drive.
So I’ve not enjoyed it, and it has never quite engaged. I’m reading it like I read Tolkein, often skipping through sections because I can’t be arsed with a particular point of view character.
What’s interesting about Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is that it came (a few years) before A Song of Ice and Fire but is clearly a massive influence on it. Here is a list.
- Winter is coming
- And with it, strange white creatures who are bad and scary
- There are multiple kingdoms and regions
- There are brutal horse people on the plains
- There is an official religion with an order of priests and monks
- There are other religions, including one that unleashes dark forces
- There are swords made of magical materials
- People are travelling around and it takes ages to get anywhere
- There are multiple p.o.v. characters all on individual quests
On this last point, as with A Song of Ice and Fire, there are really too many p.o.v characters and too many journeys. The TV producers eventually pared down GRRM’s narrative to the essentials (the ones the TV audience cared about), dropping some plot threads unresolved (to the dismay of the book audience). Remember the Hound? Remember Dorne? What about the White Walkers? The Faceless Men? What about Lady Stoneheart? All of these plot details were eventually sidelined by the TV producers as they hurried the narrative to its end. And its this tangled web of plotting that is probably behind GRRM’s difficulty in finishing the next book.
As I read The Stone of Farewell, I find myself thinking like a TV producer, and mentally paring down the different plot threads. If you’re the kind of person who likes to be completely immersed in a fantasy world for years on end, then it’s probably the series for you. It’s a kind of bridge between Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire. On one end, all the characters are human (or zombie humans). On the other, there are elf-like and dwarf-like creatures (and others). What all fantasy novels share in common is that magic is always in short supply, and you always pay a price for using it.
An issue arising out of all the plot threads, and the kingdoms and regions etc., is that the world building then demands that there are different languages. Fine. Again, part of the tradition, since Tolkein. But then you end up in a situation where not only are you trying to follow umpteen different mini-quests, but all the different regions and creatures and so on get called different things. All the names are made-up, of course, though a couple of them a recognisable English names; but then everything seems to end up having three different made-up names. It’s hard enough, when you read the first book four years ago, but then your head spins and you find yourself drowning in nouns. And you end up with passages like this:
With the added distraction of [made up name] in her summer finery, Simon did not think about much of anything for a while, but even [made up name’s] lissome sister and [made up name’s] myriad other glories could not distract him forever. Several things had been said lately that were beginning to worry him: [made up name] was angry with him, apparently, and Simon had distinctly heard [made up name] say something about breaking rules. What exactly was happening? “Where are we going, [made up name]? he asked at last.
“The [made up name].” The [made up name] gestured ahead. “There, do you see?”
But my main problem, apart from a complete lack of patience, with Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, and drowning in nouns, is that the main character (or the one I decided is the main character, the Jon Snow type) is so very irritating. By three quarters of the way through the second volume, you’d think he might have learned a few things, but no. He continues to make stupid decisions and not listen to what people are telling him throughout. Just one example. He keeps having dreams in which he hears voices. He recognises the voices and hears what they are saying, but on waking, he never tells anyone what he heard. He just says, “It was nothing,” or suchlike, and keeps Important Plot Developments to himself. As a plot device, I find it infuriating. And I guess we’re supposed to find him annoying, but still. It seems pretty unlikely that someone wouldn’t actually learn something from his many weird experiences.
So I’m not getting on with fantasy, and I find most current science fiction pretty unreadable. Bring back 80s science fiction, please and thank you.