Overall Rating: Highly Recommended (How I Rate Books)
Personal Rating: Well written, kinda a slog
Genres: High Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, Memory Sorrow Thorn, Fantasy, Classic
Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:
Spoilers below. You’ve been warned!
Talk about a blast from the past! ‘The Dragonbone Chair’ is without a doubt the most Tolkien-esque book I’ve ever read, save those by Tolkien himself. I’m going to come right out and say it: this book has a lot of the hallmarks of a Tolkien clone. That said, it was still very well written. The author included poetry and songs like Tolkien, which most/all other Tolkien clones don’t bother with. And more, this book carries obvious inspiration from the Arthurian mythos (more so than Tolkien himself), as well as Shakespeare, the Fisher King myths, Celtic myths and some other sources. So while this book so very obviously stands in the shadow of Tolkien’s mountain, it is still quite compelling all on it’s own. I was willing to forgive and ignore the Tolkien-clone-ness because it was so well done.
What makes this classic noteworthy? It’s prose. When I was reading it I was left astounded by the author’s technical chops, seemingly on every page. As I took notes, I would on an almost daily basis write down notes about just how impressed I was. On the stained glass/windowpane glass spectrum of prose beauty (stained glass= prose which is a work of art separate from the narrative, windowpane glass= prose which is subtle and serves only to express the narrative), this book is firmly on the stained-glass end of the spectrum. This book is by far the most prose-beautiful epic fantasy novel I’ve ever read.
This book is like Tolkien, but slightly more reader-friendly for modern audiences. If you liked Tolkien, chances are you’ll like this, and if you didn’t like Tolkien due to the difficulty of the language, you might like this because it’s language was more approachable.
Why else is it noteworthy? Because of the setting. This book’s setting has the feel of a standard medieval fantasy setting, but it’s execution is so well done that I couldn’t help but admire it. I think it had the best worldbuilding of this sub-type I’ve read since Tolkien himself.
From a historical perspective, I think this was one of the first Epic Fantasy stories ever written. (Epic Fantasy= Wheel of Time, Stormlight Archives, A Song of Ice and Fire, a.k.a. broad sweeping multi-book series with many characters) That alone warrants it’s fame.
But this ain’t perfect. I’ll come out swinging with my criticisms.
If you’re not a fan of the the sheer tropey-ness/cliche-ness of Tolkien’s narrative, this story retreads that same ground. Williams deliberately set out to explore ancient tropes like The Sword in the Stone, The Fisher King, the Evil Adviser to the Corrupt King, the Fae can’t stand the touch of iron, the Farmboy Orphan with Mysterious Parentage, the Rebellious Princess and the like. Williams inverts no tropes, everything is played straight. This story is exactly what it seems like from the moment you start reading.
The same goes for the narrative writ-large. Good must fight an ancient evil, preventing it from being released from imprisonment, even while the ancient evil has cursed a sword (*cough*The One Ring*cough*) and is using it to corrupt the good characters of this world (*cough*Saruman/Denithor*cough*). Also there are ancient nonhuman species the good characters have to contend with, such as the Norns (*cough*Orcs*cough*) and the Sithi (*cough*Elves*cough*) and trolls (*cough*dwarves*cough*).
Now to be fair these comparisons aren’t as 1-to-1 as I make them out to be- the Sithi are more like the Irish Sidhe than they are like Tolkien elves, as an example. But on average this book’s narrative is a story of good versus evil, no shades of grey, no competing rival political factions, no moral ambiguity of the protagonists. And while this story didn’t need any moral ambiguity, it would have added more texture to the story.
There’s nothing wrong with using tropes and cliches. You can’t avoid using them, because tropes and cliches are how the human brain works. So I suppose this is a ‘your results may vary’ sort of complaint. If you don’t like tropey books, this isn’t for you, but if you like tropey books, then you’ll probably like this.
The main character Simon was as generic as any main character I’ve ever read. We spend like 75% of the book from his perspective, and he never seemed to have any lasting character building/development. He started the story as a naive kitchen boy at the local castle, and he went on a wide-eyed adventure around Osten Ard. He never had his beliefs challenged, he never had try-fail cycles, he never was forced to compromise his values. He remained static up until the very end of the book. I don’t say this very often, but I’ll say it here: this book needed more point of view characters.
And about Simon… he was infected with the worst case of Chosen One-itus I’ve ever seen. The events of the plot seem to spontaneously occur around him as he secretly listens, as though all the movers-and-shakers of Osten Ard hold off on talking about their top secret business until Simon shows up to eavesdrop. I’m not joking: at four or five points in the story (or more) Simon eavesdrops on plot-important, top-secret conversations. It was clear that a lot of the motion of the plot was caused by the invisible hand of the author shoving Simon into situations and causing things to occur while he’s there. It felt unnatural in a deus-ex-machina sort of way.
And finally, and most significantly, the pacing. This book is paced
I’d say that the first 60% of the book is a well written snore. While I enjoyed what I was reading on a page-to-page level, I felt very little tension. This book perfected the art of a slow start. Now to be honest, I enjoyed the slowness to some extent… but 60% was way too long to set the plot in high gear. The stakes were so low that at multiple points I considered quitting reading it.
When I look for a book, I look for primarily four things: Characters, Prose, Plot and Pacing. Stuff like worldbuilding and setting come after that. This book had gloriously good prose and that carried this book for me, but it was average/slightly below average in quality for all those other primary qualifiers.
Net total, I liked this book and at moments loved it for it’s prose, worldbuilding and how it delightfully honored Tolkien’s legacy. But it was held back by the slow pacing, Simon being a bit dull and Simon being a deus-ex-machina magnet. Finally, the author used a lot of common tropes/cliches. I liked this use of tropes because he used them well, but I can see a lot of readers unimpressed by their presence.
I can Highly Recommend virtually any Fantasy reader check this book out out. What it does well, it does REALLY WELL, and what it does poorly it doesn’t do that bad. I had some qualms, but if you can tolerate a slow start you’ll probably like it. If you are turned off by tropey Epic Fantasy books, you can safely not read this book.