Into the Narrowdark: Wonderfully immersive and rewarding

Into the Narrowdark by Tad Williams science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsInto the Narrowdark by Tad Williams

Into the Narrowdark by Tad Williams science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsInto the Narrowdark is the concluding volume to Tad Williams’ epic THE LAST KING OF OSTEN ARD series, and it … Hold on. Scratch that. Apparently, Williams and his publishers have decided to split the concluding work into two books. So readers will have to wait a bit longer for that conclusion, though at least they’ll have a short novel to read instead of … Wait a minute. OK, never mind on the brevity. Turns out Into the Narrowdark is still 600+ pages, despite only being half of a final book. Thankfully, though, splitting the book means a streamlined plot and far fewer character, making it … One moment here. All right, actually the plot remains a complicated tapestry, and the list of characters at the back runs for nearly two dozen pages. But Into the Narrowdark, despite its length and often slow pacing, remains an immersive, rich read that will leave its readers thirsty for the second half. Pausing. Pausing. Nope, turns out that’s totally correct. Into the Narrowdark is, in fact, wonderfully immersive and rewarding.

Given this is the third book in the series, and all of them are tome-length, and the comment above on the complicated plotting, it goes without saying this is not a book to be read on its own. For those still reading, there will be some inevitable spoilers for the first two books, The Witchwood Crown and  Empire of Grass (not to mention the original decades-old series that began this story). I’m also assuming you’re going to recognize the following names and plot points.

Williams moves back and forth between a number of plot threads (some of which spin off further ones) and between a host of POVs, including, but not limited to: King Simon, Queen Miriamele, Prince Morgan, Princess Lillia, Count Eolair and his nephew Aelin, Qina and Snenneq, Unver, Jesa, Tiamak, Jiriki, Tanahaya, Nezuru, Viyeki. The big picture plot remains the same — Utuk’ku, Queen of the Norns, continues to press her long-game campaign to destroy both her mortal and Zida’Ya foes. In the Hayholt, the traitor’s schemes against King Simon come near their end game (unexpectedly entangling Princess Lillia as well) while Queen Miramele and Nesa flee the chaos in Nabban. Unver, leader of the Thrithings, pushes his war effort forward, though his goals and methods confuse his own people. Morgan and Nezuru try to escape the Norn Sacrifices hunting them while also trying to figure out their oddly evolving relationship. And Viyeki is tasked with a mission by the Norn Queen even as his doubts about her rule grow. And those are just a few of the plot threads Williams dangles in this book.Into the Narrowdark by Tad Williams science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews

If you’re reading this book, then you’ve read the earlier ones (I assume) and quite possibly others in Williams’ collection of work. In which case you probably began Into the Narrowdark with eyes wide open in terms of pacing. Williams, probably more than any other author I know, take his time in unspinning his story and shading in his characters. His books tend to be long, his plots tend to be drawn out, and his scenes do not always feel like they drive the plot forward (that isn’t to say they have no purpose, just plot movement isn’t necessarily it), and that holds true here as well.

Did I need all the scenes that make up Into the Narrowdark, or all the details that make up some of the scenes? No. No, I did not. And yet, thanks to Williams’ language skill and characterization, I find myself far less impatient with what I think are “unnecessary” details/scenes than I do with almost any other author. Occasionally, I confess, I think I might skim a paragraph or three, skip to the next page, but then I never do. Mostly I just think, “Hmm, not sure I needed to know/see/hear this” and then happily continue reading. No doubt a number of readers will react more adversely to the slow pacing, though I have to imagine those one gave up on Williams halfway through whichever book of his they picked up first.

It helps that Williams offers up a variety of scene types: several battle scenes, a jailbreak, a mental clash of wills, some villain monologuing (one of the weaker moments in the book I’d argue), some chase scenes, some tense one-on-one confrontations, a plot arc that almost feel like horror, and more. On the other hand, some of the scenes/moments can feel a bit overly familiar to fantasy fans (some of that may be attributed to this being a continuation of a story begun in the 80s). I had that feeling in several specific moments, as with a reference to a bread that seemed like a differently named lembas or in a scene with an inspired speech to a group of outnumbered warriors riding to break a siege, as well as with some of the big picture plot points. And a few plot points relied a bit heavily on coincidence. But as with my sense that the book was longer than it needed to be, while I noticed these moments, they didn’t really detract from my reading experience.

Tad Williams

Tad Williams

And acting as an effective salve to any sense of plot familiarity is Williams’ always wonderfully rich depiction of the non-humans in this world. His Norn don’t feel like more graceful, athletic, and eloquent humans but feel truly different. As well, he introduces a host of different forms for the non-humans beyond the usual elves and dwarves (or whatever they’re called in a particular work).

That richness of portrayal extends to the specific characterization as well. As noted, Williams does not rush anything in his novels/series. Characters do not suddenly fall in love, do not suddenly veer from good to evil or the other way around, do not suddenly mature or change the worldview they were inculcated in since childhood. These things happen, of course, but they do so in due time (perhaps due “deep time” is more accurate for Williams). So Viyeki, for instance, has been experiencing some doubts about his Norn queen for a book or two now, and this one moves him further along that path, but only so far. He is not the same person he was, but he has also not wholly turned his back on that person he was (or on the culture that formed his identity). This “caught betwixt and between one’s selves” holds for a number of characters, and so we get several versions of lines like: “Something inside her wanted more possibilities, even though she could not imagine what those possibilities might be, or how they could even exist.” Or “Though [he] pushed away the treacherous thoughts before they could overwhelm him, he still could feel something stirring inside him, a seedling …”

While again, some readers may balk at the glacial pace of his change (which may or may not go where readers want it to), for me, it’s a far more satisfying reading experience than having Viyeki witness an atrocity and suddenly throw his whole prior existence away. This sort of shuffling half-steps forward (sometimes with half or full steps backward mixed in) can be seen in several of the character arcs, something I appreciated in all of them, though your mileage may vary.

Thanks to the deep characterization, the realistic speed of character growth, the level of detail, and yes, the number of pages, reading Into the Narrowdark is, as I noted above and as I’ve said repeatedly about Williams’ work, a wholly immersive experience, with the reader slowly sinking into this fictive world, so that our own world is sort of half-sense, then becomes an annoying background flicker, then disappears entirely until one turns the final page. Despite its 600+ pages, I happily finished the novel in two sittings, and had I not had some real-world responsibilities, would have probably finished it in one long reading session. I look forward to seeing where Williams takes this story and these characters — some of whom I first met 35 years ago — in the final (crosses fingers) installment.

Published July 2022. TThe High Throne of Erkynland is tottering, its royal family divided and diminished. Queen Miriamele has been caught up in a brutal rebellion in the south and thought to have died in a fiery attack. Her grandson Morgan, heir to the throne, has been captured by one of Utuk’ku’s soldiers in the ruins of an abandoned city. Miriamele’s husband, King Simon, is overwhelmed by grief and hopelessness, unaware that many of these terrible things have been caused by Pasevalles, a murderous traitor inside Simon’s own court at the Hayholt. Meanwhile, a deadly army of Norns led by the ageless, vengeful Queen Utuk’ku, has swept into Erkynland and thrown down the fortress of Naglimund, slaughtering the inhabitants and digging up the ancient grave of Ruyan the Navigator. Utuk’ku plans to use the Navigator’s fabled armor to call up the spirit of Hakatri, the evil Storm King’s brother. Even the Sithi, fairy-kin to the Norns, are helpless to stop Utuk’ku’s triumph as her armies simultaneously march on the Hayholt and force their way into the forbidden, ogre-guarded valley of Tanakirú—the Narrowdark—where a secret waits that might bring Simon’s people and their Sithi allies salvation—or doom. 

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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