There are two main ways to read The Dragonbone Chair and its sequels in the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy, and they are not mutually exclusive: this can be thought of as a historical fantasy story with sorcerous elements, or as a Tolkien-style fantasy with strong historical elements. There are other appellations that could be applied – coming-of-age, swords and sorcery, Arthurian (we’ll touch on this one a bit), secondary world, epic – but if I were asked to put this on a bookstore or library shelf, I would put it under historical fantasy.
There is good reason for this, which the author even makes explicit in his explanation of what inspired him to write this series. Williams was seeking to explore what happens when a great king dies, ala Charlemagne or Arthur. This should not be confused with when a great conqueror dies, although some of the effects can be similar. Alexander’s line of succession was known to be muddied, and he died before reaching the point of being a great ruler. Genghis Khan made his succession more explicit, but still largely failed to see his empire consolidated and actively ruled during his own lifespan; that was left for his sons to work out amongst themselves (and they did a better job than most descendants of conquerors, but that’s another post). Instead, this trilogy examines what happens when a ruler who lives long enough to consolidate, rule, and become known as the wise and just leader after he or she complete the conquest finally dies.
We’ll explore this larger historical context when I do a series review post for Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, but for now we should focus on the first installment, The Dragonbone Chair. You astute and avid readers of my book reviews likely already know how I felt about this book: if I’m intending to read the sequels, it must be a fantastic book. So yes, The Dragonbone Chair was strong enough to pull me into its sequels, and these are not quick reads. Cradle these are not.
I don’t know who can be most credited with transitioning fantasy away from the slow build style of authors like Tolkien and more towards an immediate gratification presentation of such novels. Maybe it was Jordan, who starts The Eye of the World with a vivid scene of the ending of the last Age before transitioning to the slow build that is his fourteen book magnum opus. It could have been Sanderson, whose novels frequently feature some kind of aggressive, thrown-into-the-middle prologue showing off the magic system and world in dazzling action (Stormlight Archive does this twice). In Writing 21st Century Fiction, the author speaks about micro-tension, saying that writing modern fiction that is compelling to readers requires there to be tension in every line, every moment of the story.
It’s an exciting way to write and an exciting way to read, and I’ve been known to use the technique myself. My first djinn storyline novel (see this post for an explanation) opens with a dethroned emperor coming to the seat of his usurpers for revenge, before transitioning to a middle-of-nowhere mining village. Authors are starting to realize that this style of prologue (and perhaps the prologue in general) is becoming overused, but the idea of being thrown directly into the action, with backstory built through references and flashbacks, is considered great storytelling technique. However, there are multiple ways to skin a cat.
Maass would probably have told Williams to cut most of the first third of The Dragonbone Chair, or to condense it into a chapter or two, maybe add a prologue of Pyrates having some sinister meeting. I’m glad that he wasn’t editing or publishing for Williams, because that would have been a terrible decision. Oh, it might still have been an enjoyable story, with interesting characters and plot, but I probably wouldn’t be looking to read the other two books in the trilogy. It would be another fantasy novel with little remarkable about it.
Instead, we get over a third of the book with Williams slowly building up his world, his characters, his plot, his conflict. We are rarely, if ever, given any explicit information to tell us what the plot will be, who the villains really are, or even with which characters we should most be sympathizing. Instead, we have Simon, a scullion boy with little knowledge of the greater happenings in the castle, who is a little whiney, not very capable, and kind of lazy at most things except getting himself into trouble. When Simon accidently stumbles upon a major secret that tips the novel over the peak of the massive hill it had spent all of this time climbing, events start to rush far faster than Simon can comprehend, and the reader is swept breathlessly along. It is an immediacy of storytelling that is difficult to accomplish if the reader can feel the story beats.
I call it a slow build, and say how nothing directly plot-related seems to be happening for much of the early book, but do not take that to mean that this is a boring section that you get through to have the payoff in the later parts. It turns out that “nothing” happening can be incredibly tense. By not giving us the usual plot beats and character beats in the usual places, by dragging out the kick out the door that even in Tolkien comes within a few chapters, Williams subverts our expectations as genre readers, and without those familiar landmarks we become more immersed in the story, more true to Simon’s viewpoint and understanding of events, and we are almost as surprised as he is when things start happening. Maybe it’s a symptom of how much I read, and how much I’ve been studying the mechanics of writing speculative fiction, but I found that this made The Dragonbone Chair incredibly refreshing to read.
You can call this derivative, and assert that it ties too closely to Tolkien and a dozen other fantasy series. You can say how the plot is pretty standard, how the characters have their roles to play, how modern readers don’t have patience for all of the metaphors, analogies, and descriptions Williams deploys. You might even be right if you said all of that. The thing is: it doesn’t matter. If this is derivative, then it is a masterclass in how an old idea skillfully and originally executed can be more refreshing than the most original of tales. For all that the plot is standard and the characters have roles, it is the riffing on that formula that helps take readers by surprise and subvert their expectations. Everyone who reads fantasy probably predicted that Pyrates is bad news and that Doctor Morgenes is the Gandalf/Delben/Dumbledore of the series. Those very predictions make it all the more startling when that changes. Only rarely does the reader get enough information to outguess Simon by more than a page or two, and that keeps us from being frustrated with the protracted maturation process he must endure.
My point is: you should read this book. Ignore the descriptions and summaries of the series, which will sound banal and standard to fantasy readers. Ignore the semi-generic cover, and look past the comparisons to The Lord of the Rings. Instead, read this review, and read the book. I think you’ll understand why I say that The Dragonbone Chair is one of the most refreshing fantasy books I’ve read in a long time, and why, even though I’ve not read sequels to some very good books I’ve read in the past few years (Swordspoint, for instance, or Wild Seed), next week’s review will be for Stone of Farewell.