I was really looking forward to The Witchwood Crown after I got back into the world of Osten Ard earlier this year with Tad Williams’ excellent short novel The Heart of What Was Lost. It’s properly doorstop-sized and it follows a bunch of characters from the original Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy!
It’s been about thirty years since the events of the previous books and Osten Ard, ruled by High King and Queen Simon and Miriamele, has been enjoying peace and stability. Things have been growing steadily worse as the terrible war of the Storm King begins to fade from memory – several kingdoms are facing internal political strife, contact with the Sithi has been lost, and Utuk’ku, the dark queen of the Norns, has woken and once again plots the destruction of humanity.
We follow several protagonists across Osten Ard as events come to a head: Osten Ard’s monarchs (and our old friends) Simon and Miriamele, their grandchildren Prince Morgan and Princess Lillia, other people from the Hayholt including the chancellor Lord Pasevalles, court members (and also old friends) Tiamak and Count Eolair, Norn engineer Viyeki (who we last met in The Heart of What Was Lost), his human concubine Tzoja and half-human daughter Nezeru, a couple of characters from the grasslands of Thrithings, a servant of the Duchess of Nabban, a mysterious Norn-hunter named Jarnulf… I might be forgetting some. This is an epic story affecting the whole world and it’s told through people living through events in a bunch of different places, and only the readers know the whole story of how they may all be connected.
I expected to plow through this book and stay up all night reading it but it was actually slow going. For the first few hundred pages of the book, it didn’t seem like anything was happening, I felt like I was reading a slice of life story, except not as interesting because it was actually about twenty different slice of life stories and we didn’t stick with any viewpoint for enough time for me to develop a real investment in the characters. The last third of the book is much better paced; things start to change rapidly, we get answers to burning questions, and we start to see all those disparate threads come together.
Another thing that disappointed me was how the characters from the first trilogy had aged and how that impacted the plot. Simon and Miri are old and grief-stricken from the loss of their son a few years prior to the events of the book, they seem almost unforgivably gullible to have not noticed all the trouble brewing around them – not a good quality for monarchs. Their grandson and heir Prince Morgan is utterly insufferable, he’s spoiled and petulant, and Simon and Miri don’t seem to know how to deal with him at all – everything they do is obviously going to fail, and I don’t know how they don’t realize that. I’m not saying this is bad writing, in fact it’s probably realistic that Simon and Miri aren’t going to be good at politicking or dealing with people that don’t have the inherent drive to be good (like Morgan), but it’s not very much fun to read about our old heroes being incompetent.
Other than those two (admittedly major) gripes, I thought The Witchwood Crown was a pretty good book. It’s certainly more nuanced the the original trilogy. I’m especially glad that the Norns are being given some definition and not just treated as faceless villains; between Tzoja, Nezeru, and Viyeki, we get a variety of perspectives into their culture and motivations. The prose is good, of course. And by the end of the book, I was intrigued by most of the plotlines enough to eagerly await the next book. I hope it has better pacing and more competent characters, though.
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