Saturday, July 31, 2010

Review of The Dragonbone Chair

Book Info: The Dragonbone Chair, by Tad Williams , first published in 1989. This book is the first in a four part fantasy series Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.

2 Line Summary: Orphan discovers noble fate and is forced to help save the world(stop me if you heard this one before).

Author Info: Tad Williams is the author of TailChaser's song as well as the otherland series.

Plot Summary:
Simon, a kitchen scullion in the great castle of the Hayholt, serves also as apprentice wizard to Morgenes and spends his days daydreaming about a great and noble future instead of attending to his lessons. While Simon loses himself in his daydreams the kingdom awaits the death of Prester John, wondering what changes will arrive when the old man, whose reign was known for its peace and prosperity, finally passes. Whispers abound as to the prospected clash between John's two sons.
Upon the death of the king the Kingdom is plunged into civil war. Simon must pick sides in the conflict, and undertake a quest to secure the safety of the kingdom from a supernatural threat.

I don't make a habit of reviewing books that disappoint me, or that I feel fail overall. The world of books is vast and time is short and I believe a primary purpose of a book blog is to help direct readers to works worthy of their effort. A book that has flaws in characterization, or plotting, or worldbuilding can still be redeemed by other aspects and leave a deep impression. For example, though I very much believe Brandon Sanderson's Elantris a novel deserving of praise and a wide readership, I do think it loses points for plot problems(a deus ex machina ending for one plot thread). Having said that though the quality of the worldbuilding is impressive as well as the characterization. The novel rewards close reading for those two aspects alone.
But I reviewed The Dragonbone Chair because it is seminal in the genre if for no other reason it heralded a new approach. There were few bedroom scenes for adults or true issues of moral choice and consequence resembling real life dilemmas in mainstream fantasy when the book was first published. Williams bravery in tackling these themes and working them into his series is to be praised. But his handling of them, and his attempt to make the work even and balanced as a result, does not succeed. For that reason I think I leave it up to the reader to determine whether it is worth the effort. For my part, I was sorely dissappointed and could not summon the effort to read the remaining books of the series. Too many pages of wanting to punch Simon in the face for his dim wittedness make me cautious before attempting to wade through the long dry passages before I find a gem of lyricism. Though I may do so at a later date.
The problem of how to make a main character kind of slow on the uptake yet still appealing to the reader is a difficult one for a writer. I can't think of many that have succeeded. In fact, a quick survey of the fantasy novels I've read thus far this year, have characters that do not fit this mold: Arlen, Kylar, Tingil, Shrike, all portrayed as if not brilliant, then they can at least be described as quick to learn. It may be that now as a fantasy reader I am used to the uber intelligent characters like Kvothe and Tyrion. And although I think Williams did a good job in portraying Simon I can't help but wonder why? Why choose this character for the narrative center? Why make the majority of events we see filtered through a consciousness that needs so much explained to him by other characters? It just seems a titanic waste of time.
Simon's not mentally deficient, just obstinate. Had Simon suffered from an abnormally low IQ, or not have the power to speak, that would have changed the dynamic of the story considerably and might make the sections more interesting(think of what Faulkner did with Benjy in The Sound and the Fury). But as it is Simon's inability as a character to grasp the significance of details the author has him register interferes with the pace of the narrative. When I as a reader am three steps ahead of the main character in foreseeing the implications of the events in the story it gets frustrating to wait for the main character to find another character to help him catch up.
Still I may end up reading the series after all. There were parts that were lyrically beautiful, such as the description of the old king falling asleep on his throne, the dragonbone chair. And the descriptions of the Sithi were well done. He makes the reader genuinely feel the sense of these characters as an alien race and culture. Their movements, their speech, the architecture they choose to surround themselves with, all vivid and lush. He also displays skill in capturing the weather, and the feel of characters moving through a landscape.
Hopefully Simon gets smarter as the series progresses.

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