Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

As promised last week, this will be our review for Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn as a whole, assembled trilogy.  We’ll be talking in more detail about the story as a whole, and the writing specifically, across all three books.  I’ll put links to my reviews for the specific books in the trilogy, starting with The Dragonbone Chair, at the bottom of the post.  Also as I promised/warned last week, I do not intend to avoid spoilers in this post.  I’ve for some time now been making a point of not including spoilers in my weekly book reviews (does anyone know which was the first of the weekly book reviews to not have my little spoiler warning (which I included even if I didn’t have spoilers in the review for a while)?), but for a series review I’ve decided that it is appropriate to make an exception so that we can discuss in detail specific decisions that the author made.  This is probably how I will do most series reviews in the future.  For now, though, let’s finish with all of this administrative stuff, and get into the meat of the review.

If you’re wondering what a “series review” is, and why I bother reviewing a series after reviewing all of the individual books, I don’t blame you; it’s been a long time since we posted one of these on the site.  These days, a book has to really seize my attention and give me a compelling push if I’m going to pick up the next one in a series.  There have been several books that I’ve really enjoyed recently that were sufficiently self-contained that, for as much as I enjoyed them, I either wasn’t interested by the sequel or didn’t want to spoil the first book, and so did not continue with the series.  Considering that my reading list continues, despite my best efforts, to grow at a more prodigious rate than I can read, I think you’ll understand why.  Of the series that I am reading, many of them remain incomplete.  So these don’t show up very often, but I like to do them.  They provide me a format in which I can discuss observations, thoughts, and considerations that don’t quite fit into the reviews for the individual books, and, in this new paradigm, also give me a place in which I can share my thoughts without worrying about potential spoilers, which I think will be of value to other aspiring authors in the audience.

I don’t think I need to say how much I enjoyed Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.  I glowed about it in all three of the book reviews for it, and the mere fact that I read all three books is a testament.  By far the strongest, in my opinion, was The Dragonbone Chair.  I loved the concept of it, the writing style, the mysteries, the slow, slow build, the promises for the future, the subversion of tropes, and so much more.  I thought that I had the whole trilogy figured out a few dozen pages in, and I could not have been more wrong.  At the same time, I was in some ways completely right.  So let’s dive into what’s probably going to be the main discussion of this post: tropes.

Whether you’ve made a specific study of storytelling and plotting, as I have, or have simply read a lot, you probably have a hard time finding books that really take you by surprise.  Even books that feel new and unique can sometimes be predictable, especially if you’re familiar with the author’s other works.  I don’t just mean big literary concepts like plot archetypes (think: the hero’s journey) or story beats; I mean the little tells and clues that authors leave that experienced readers know to look for and pick up on within a few pages.  Whether the author means to or not is irrelevant, because most of the time those hints are there.  The choice of viewpoint character, the inclusion of certain references, the appearance of certain setting elements, certain stylistic decisions, even the way in which certain characters are introduced can all telegraph a disproportionate amount of information to the reader. 

Many other reviews for books in this trilogy call it derivative, a Lord of the Rings knock-off, and I suspect that’s because the readers are picking up that some of the tells are shared.  Certainly there are similarities, in some cases large ones: the Sithi, with their struggles to come to terms with their immortality and their exile from their original home in the mysterious West, are extremely elven, especially if you’ve ever read The Silmarillion.  Or perhaps they are more akin to the demigods that gave rise to Sauron, in some ways.  Anyway, that discussion is neither here nor there.  Yes, there are elements of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn that will feel very familiar to readers of fantasy.  There are magic swords, a secret society of learned wizard-mentors, a dark lord, a corrupt king, an orphan with a heritage…I could go on.  With all of that, what could possibly be a surprise in this trilogy?

The answer, it turns out, is quite a lot.  There are hints of the differences in the early parts of the series.  First of all, the old king clings to life for a long time, throwing off the “expected” pacing.  When he does finally die, the world does not immediately end, his magic sword gets buried with him, and things sort of go back to normal after the reader expects the story to begin to pick up the pace.  The reader expects Simon to be taken in by Morgenes, but the narrative is such that the reader is taken by surprise when Simon stumbles upon the king’s imprisoned brother in the evil wizard’s dungeon.  The reader expected Morgenes to be the mentor figure for Simon as they flee the castle with the imprisoned prince…except that the prince goes ahead, Morgenes is killed, and Simon has to escape the castle alone.

That scene sets the tone for the whole trilogy, and emblemizes what I think makes this trilogy work so well, despite being derivative in places.  It stays close enough to the “expected” that the reader clings to those ideas, but continually twists and subverts those expectations in ways that work (for me, at least) incredibly well.  Between these subversions of expectations and the very tight narrative, with no characters who can really answer our questions given a viewpoint or kept on the scene long enough to give those answers, the story is able to take readers by surprise even with revelations that ought to have been predictable.

It’s also why the very end of the story was somewhat disappointing.  Everything, including the climax, was full of these kinds of revelations and subversions.  I guessed early on that Nisses’ prophecy might not be serving the “good guys,” and that bringing all of the swords together seemed like just the thing to do what everyone said was impossible – resurrecting the Storm King – but then there is no last minute realization and grand struggle, there is no final heroic moment.  The swords are brought together, the Storm King is resurrected, and it is only the fundamental goodness of Simon and Camaris, their ability to understand and forgive the Storm King, this dark force against which they have been striving all this time, that ends up saving the day.  To get to that point, a lot of major characters are killed off, and all of the characters are true to the groundwork that has been laid.  Yet the ending, what comes after that climax, is almost too pat, after all of this time Williams spent walking a careful balance between the expected and the unexpected.

There is probably no magic formula to determine how to strike that kind of balance in your own writing.  It’s nothing as direct as “one subversion for every three tropes.”  As I mentioned in my review for To Green Angel Tower, this is very different from something that specifically sets out to defy and avoid tropes.  This is a way of making your readers’ expectations work to your advantage to make your storytelling more powerful.  I really enjoyed Williams’ execution of the technique, and I maintain that the best word I can think of to describe the whole trilogy, as ironic as it might seem to those who call it a derivative story, is ‘refreshing.’

Like the storytelling itself, Williams’ world-building is worth taking a moment to examine.  Technically, this is alternative world/secondary world fantasy.  Yet if you approach the story expecting something as alien as Roshar, or even as unique as Cradle, or my own Lufilna, you will be disappointed.  It is alternative world because it is not Earth, but it is more like my Thorskgold story, where the world is intentionally Earth-like.  There are differences, to be sure.  The geography is different, magic is real, there are Sithi and Niskies and Ghants and dragons, and the history and civilizations are not real-world.  However, even the cursory reader will notice resonances.  There is a version of Christianity, including an inverted Christ figure (literally – his torture involved being hung from his ankles), and clear cultural parallels.  Even the High King John is intended to be an Arthur or Charlemagne figure – Williams says as much explicitly in talking about the books.

This allows the world-building, in terms of setting and cultures and relationships, to take a backseat to the other aspects of storytelling that Williams wants to showcase.  It’s a deliberate choice, and it works really well.  The world is made just different enough to draw in the reader, make sure they understand that this is not somehow set on Earth, and no further.

In my own writing, I am frequently wary of building a world too close to Earth, especially when it comes to actual history or cultures or religions that might be involved.  My Thorskgold story forced me to confront that, and Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn demonstrates how to do it properly.  It allows the story to shine in a way that it would not if the reader had been forced to wade through a barrage of alien terminology, references, and history.  There is a time and a place for that kind of writing, the kind of story where you have custom units of measurement for every nation on the planet and unique religions for each tribe, but it is not every story.  I wouldn’t trade away Roshar’s vivid, larger-than-life ecosystem, but sometimes an understated bit of world-building like Williams gives us is perfect in its own way.

With that, I think I will stop belaboring Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.  I’ve already written in the other reviews about how much I liked the slow build and why it worked so well, so I will not go into that further here.  If you haven’t already, and for some reason decided to read this review after I explicitly warned you of its spoiler-laden nature, then I really hope that you still decide to give Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn a try soon.

Book 1: The Dragonbone Chair

Book 2: Stone of Farewell

Book 3: To Green Angel Tower

2 thoughts on “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn Review

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