Note: This review has been updated after a re-read, but we’re keeping the old comments on the post.
The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams
Tad Williams’ MEMORY, SORROW, & THORN was one of the first epic fantasy trilogies I ever read and, two and a half decades ago, I absolutely loved everything about it. It’s one of the two series I recommend to new fantasy readers who ask me where to start (the other is Robin Hobb’s FARSEER saga). For years I’ve been wanting to re-read MEMORY, SORROW, & THORN but I’ve been waiting patiently for it to be released in audio format, even going so far as to pester the audio publishers about it, as well as Tad Williams’ wife, Deborah Beale, who does a lot of his publicity. Finally, this year Penguin Random House Audio released audio version of the trilogy (The Dragonbone Chair, The Stone of Farewell, To Green Angel Tower) in preparation for next month’s The Heart of What Was Lost, a new novel set in the world of Osten Ard. Hooray!
In The Dragonbone Chair, we meet Simon, a teenage orphan who was born to a serving woman in the keep of Prester John, the old benevolent king of Osten Ard. Simon is a kitchen boy, doing the bidding of the woman in charge of the kitchen whom he calls Rachel the Dragon. Rachel, who calls Simon a “mooncalf,” is constantly frustrated with Simon’s tendency to dream the day away while caring little about Rachel’s high standards for the castle.
Simon’s boring life changes when King John dies, leaving the throne to Elias, his oldest son. When Elias and his court move in to the keep, they bring new life to Osten Ard, but they also bring Pyrates, an authoritative advisor who may have sinister ideas for how to use the power of the throne. After the glamour of a new prince wears off, the people of Osten Ard realize that the new king is not serving them well. Also unpleased with the situation are Prince Josua, Elias’s younger brother, and Princess Miriamele, Elias’s daughter. When they start acting against Elias, Simon gets tangled up in the drama. As he sets off on various related quests, he meets elves, trolls, giants, and even a dragon.
It was great fun to reacquaint myself with Simon the mooncalf and the other inhabitants of Osten Ard, but I have to admit that this time I loved The Dragonbone Chair more for its nostalgic value than for the story. Tad Williams is a great story-teller, as I had recalled, but at this point in my life I’m much less patient with this type of epic fantasy than I was 25 years ago. The book is a whopping 800 pages (33 hours in audio), and that’s just the first installment. The pace is slow, with every scene described vividly and a huge cast of major and minor characters to try to remember. Still, the characters are interesting and likeable even though many of them fit recognizable molds (something I can’t feel too critical about in a book written before they all became epic fantasy clichés). And they actually accomplish important deeds by the end of the book, even if we are a little tired of watching them travel across Osten Ard.
If you’re looking for a fantasy with a cast of diverse characters, some really strong women, a non-Western setting, non-stop action, or new ideas that will blow your mind, this isn’t it. If you’re in the mood for a slow-paced unchallenging medieval-style epic fantasy with a coming-of-age hero, The Dragonbone Chair is one of the best of them thanks to Tad Williams’ skills as world-builder and story-teller. I knew exactly what I was getting into when I decide to re-read this trilogy and waited until I was feeling nostalgic for the type of fantasy I loved reading when I was a lot younger. I’m certain that younger readers, especially teens, will get a lot more out of The Dragonbone Chair than older readers with a lot of fantasy reading under their belts.
The new audio version, by the way, is terrific. Andrew Wincott does a great job with all of the characters and I am pleased that I waited to re-read the book in this format. I’m looking forward to finishing this trilogy and trying the new Osten Ard novel, The Heart of What Was Lost. I have a feeling that it will feel a lot fresher than the original trilogy does.
Tales of Osten Ard / Last King of Osten Ard — (2017-2022)
What a great book!! I’m new to the Fantasy Literature website and I read The Dragon Chair based on the recommendation on this site. The odds weren’t good I would like it. I wasn’t in the mood for a long epic with so many characters the author felt compelled to put an appendix in the back of the book.
IMO what makes this book so incredible is Tad Williams masterful use of words. His descriptions and character building are fantastic. He took a very routine plot and made a masterpiece that flows extremely well.
There are some stereotypical elements that make the book predictable. It has the map in the front of the book. It has trolls from a snowy, northern land with Eskimo-sounding names. Their northern neighbors are large warlike men with Nordic-sounding names. It’s a coming of age story with good vs evil. Nothing special or original here. But Tad Williams takes the routine and makes it something very special in The Dragon Bone Chair!!
I feel the same way. It’s been many years since I read this (which is why the review is so short — I just can’t remember it well enough). I can’t wait to read it again. There has been talk for a few years about it being put on audio, so I’m waiting for that.
Meanwhile, I just started a re-read of Robin Hobb’s TAWNY MAN trilogy (sequel to FARSEER) because it’s just come out on audio this month. I am really enjoying coming back to this world. If you love MST, I’d definitely suggest trying Robin Hobb’s FARSEER next.
Thanks for the recommendation! I’ll put Farseer on my list. I’m in the middle of “The Rise of Endymion” by Dan Simmons (last book in his Hyperion Cantos) and I have Magician: Apprentice by Raymond Feist up next (another recommendation from this site). So many great books and so little time!!
I know, I know!
That’s why we say “Life’s too short to read bad books!”
I’m a high school teacher so I try to go full speed ahead during the summer break and read as many books as I can.
I’m a teacher, too, but I actually get LESS read in the summer because my kids are home. (And I teach some during the summer, too).
Any thoughts on Stone of Farewell? I just finished it and greatly enjoyed it. Not quite as outstanding as The Dragonbone Chair but very, very good.
Hi Kevin, I loved it too, but it’s been so long since I read it. I can’t wait to read this again!!
Just finished “To Green Angel Tower Part 1”. Excellent book. Like Stone of Farewell, it’s not quite up there with The Dragonbone Chair but still very, very good. Williams is an amazing writer. On to the 4th book in the trilogy!! :) At least the publisher explains the reason for splitting the final book into two parts.
Still waiting for these to be produced on audio!
Finished To Green Angel Tower Part 2 and really enjoyed it.
IMO The Dragon Bone Chair and Stone of Farewell are a bit better than To Green Angel Tower Parts 1 and 2. Both Green Angel Tower books are good but the pacing tends to drag in places. The entire series is about 3,000 pages (paperback) and I think Williams could have cut it down by a couple hundred pages, mostly in the Green Angel Tower books. I love the characters and storyline, but I can live without 60 pages describing how a character wanders in the dark under a castle or 50 pages describing how a group is lost in a swamp. Way too much repetitive information and description at times.
Still a very solid series that I have recommended to my own children!!
Oh I hope my library gets the audio version in! I read these back in the dawning of time and would love to revisit in audio.
“If you’re looking for a fantasy with a cast of diverse characters, some really strong women, a non-Western setting, non-stop action, or new ideas that will blow your mind, this isn’t it.”