Empire of Grass by Tad Williams
OK, first of all, I’ve got to give Empire of Grass (2019) an automatic four stars just because it actually has a “previously in Osten Ard” prologue. I mean, seriously people. TV shows give us a recap of what happened six days of real time and an hour of episode-time ago, and you can’t offer up a damned reminder of what happened a year or two (or five!) and six hundred pages ago? Really? So props to Tad Williams for taking pity on us hapless readers. A four is the floor for you. May others go to school on your noblesse oblige.
I’m also going to offer a slow clap to Williams for going all in with on the epic in epic fantasy with this nearly 700-page tome. Did he need all those pages? No. No, he did not. But you have to be impressed by the utter lack of apology here. You want a slow circular meander through a trackless forest that feels like a slow circular meander through a trackless forest? Not really? Who cares? Not Williams. You’re getting it anyway. Slowly. Circular-ly (yeah, yeah, not a word, I know). Complete with fruit peeling, river bathing, star gazing, tree climbing, and all the other action-packed highlights of a stroll through the woods. You can almost hear him muttering, “You wanna call an 80-minute TV episode ‘epic’? Hold my cluster of ‘newly-discovered berry branches or hazel shedding ripe nuts’ GoT. I’ll show you epic.”
So yes, I have to admit there were times I was tempted to skim (but didn’t — these are the arrows we reviewers take for you readers). All in all, I’m thinking lopping off a 100 or so pages (conservatively) wouldn’t have greatly harmed the story in terms of plot or character. But truth is, once you realize early on the pace and rhythm, it’s pretty easy to settle in and just ride the prolix wave all the way home.
The plot, as one might imagine, is complex and, as usual, presents multiple arcs scattered across the land. Let me explain. No, let me sum up:
In the Hayholt, King Simon is wrestling with ruling a chaotic kingdom amidst worsening news of threats from within and without: evil cults, restless plains people on the border, Norns gearing up for another attack on humanity, unexpected deaths in his own castle, and various economic issues). All of which he has to handle without Queen Miri, who is in Nabban trying to tamp down the political unrest threatening to explode into violence and tear that province apart. Their grandson and heir Prince Morgan is lost in the great woods (see circular, see trackless) after an attack on his party by a group of grasslanders and the troll family (Binabik et. al.) searching for him. Also as a result of that raid, Count Elohair, after being captured, has been taken to the great meeting of the clans as they try to determine whether a true Shan (one to rule them all and bind them in the darkness, wait, not that last part) has arisen to lead them to war.
On the non-human (mostly) side of things, the quest to find a live dragon begun in the prior book, The Witchwood Crown, is nearing its end, leaving the human hunter Jarnulf trying to figure out how to achieve his goal of killing the Norn Queen, the Norn warrior Nezeru continuing her path toward questioning her own people’s goals, and the Norn Singer Saomeji still rubbing his hands and cackling evilly. Elsewhere, half-human/half-Norn Tzoja, who escaped her slave role in the prior novel is trying to hide out all alone in her secret place (as one might imagine, she doesn’t succeed, as that would be pretty dull). And finally, the Norn Builder Viyeki, who like Nezeru has begun to question his Queen’s plans, is set to the task of uncovering a great tomb so as to further said Queen’s said plans, a minor issue being that said tomb lies under a fortress manned by lots of pesky humans. By the way, “finally” means I’ve ended the synopsis, not that Viyeki’s is the last POV, because oh boy is he not. I skipped over lots of other storylines and POVs, including but not limited to a scholar’s search for a long-lost prince, a child’s discovery that all is not what it seems in the palace, and a soldier’s frantic attempts to warn Simon of human treachery. As noted, there is a lot going on here.
Which makes it all the more impressive that Empire of Grass is not a hot mess. Instead, Williams shows his oft-proven deftness at handling complicated plots ranging across a host of POVs and a wide range of territory with fluid aplomb. Each thread is skillfully woven together to create an immersive, engrossing, and yes, massive tapestry, albeit one that sags here and there due to employing a bit more thread than required.
That sagging weight does slow momentum down in several of the arcs. For instance, I really wished Miri’s storyline had been streamlined so as to heighten what is an already often-tense subplot centering on an ever-rising political tension ready to boil over at any time. Or if not Miri’s story itself, some of the other ones that pulled us away a bit too long from it or similarly fraught plotlines. A balance needs to be found of course, some relief from tension, some quiet moments to counter frantic action, but I can’t say Williams quite nailed that balance here, though its lack was more of a niggling complaint than anything that truly marred the reading experience. It’s a sighing impatience rather than a bellowing, “Get on with it!” sort of readerly response. An impatience more than a little ameliorated by the fact that Williams’ prose, even when there’s a bit too much of it, is always such a smooth, rewarding pleasure to read.
In addition, the length and detail certainly makes for an immersive experience, both in this world as it is and in the world as it was. One of the more pleasing aspects is how much more we learn of the deep past, how the Sithi and the Norn, as well as the Tinukeda’ya are related and why they’re estranged. Though of course, it comes to us via story and myth and who knows how reliable such tales, not to mention the tale-tellers, are.
The length also goes a good ways toward the creation of rich, complex characters who change (if they do) at a realistic pace. It’s all well and good to have a character face an immoral or unethical act and immediately turnabout to “the light”, but a) light and dark are seldom so cleanly separate and b) even in moments that seem starkly clear, people don’t often turn against their own people, their own history, their own upbringing quite so easily and heroically. And thus we end with movement toward change that, in this novel, at least, varies between a fully active shifting of sides to more cautious exploration of one’s own stance. More authors should take the time to show such changes in this fashion.
Most of Empire of Grass’ characters are in the midst of or on the cusp of learning that things are not as they have been or as they have seemed to have been. Often it’s an emotional revelation, as when one notes that “once the gate of pity had been opened, no matter how narrowly, it could not easily be closed again. Where will it end?” Sometimes it’s political, as when two characters debate whether the old cliché that “peace never lasts” is a cliché because it harbors an actual truth or because it acts as an excuse. But in any case, most discover, or are heading toward the discovery, that “the world she had greeted morning was not the world she had thought it was, and she was lost and alone on a world of water.” In the next novel, which I greatly look forward to, the question to be answered by so many is what they will do with that epiphany.