By the time I was thirteen, I had plowed through every book that called itself fantasy. I had read everything I could, from Terry Brooks to Anne McCaffery. I had chewed my way through thousands of pages, had traveled lands as diverse as Shannara and Earthsea, had met Conan and Taran, and had begun to turn away from the genre. I was sick to death of it. The stories were all variants of the same plot and pretty much the same characters. Some books were far more original than others, of course, but even they suffered from a bleary sameness. An encounter with the same wonder of discovery I had felt reading Tolkien was nearly impossible to find. And although I wanted the same feeling I had when reading Tolkien, I didn’t want Tolkien. I probably would have been hard-pressed to tell you what kind of story or book I was looking for.
I remember walking into the Mr. Paperback store in the Auburn Mall near where I grew up. I remember going as I usually did the wall where the fantasy books were shelved. And I remember scanning the titles, searching for something new. I remember it with a strange clarity that I have sometimes regarding books. The green cover. The florid artwork, the unknown author, at least to me. And although it cost me a good portion of money, and although it was a large, thick book, quite a commitment, I bought it. The book became one of my favorite fantasy books. I recommended it to anyone who liked fantasy, telling them it was the best fantasy book in a long time.
Which it was. Recently, thanks to George R.R. Martin, fantasy has been getting more attention, and in the last few years, fantasy has become much more interesting. The works of Joe Abercrombie, Robin Hobb, Patrick Rothfuss, and Mark Lawrence, among others, have shown that fantasy can have complicated characters, brilliantly realized settings, and remarkable prose. It has all wanted to make me re-visit Tad Williams and the book that inspired George R.R. Martin to begin his epic series A Song of Ice and Fire.
It is interesting to re-read something after so many years. I remember next to nothing of the book, but the moment I encounter a new character, it leaps to my remembrance like an old friend whose face I’ve just managed to recognize through its veil of wrinkles. I had a shock of recognition when I finally remembered Binabik, one of my great favorites in the book. What surprises me about the book is not how much I remember, but really how much I have forgotten. I always name this book as one of the great works of fantasy literature, and yet I’ve forgotten nearly everything about Osten Ard, the world where the characters exist. Traveling in it again is a strange experience, at once new but here and there comes something that I wholly remember. I even remember words that gave me trouble when I was thirteen, and, reading it now, I can see why.
The Dragonbone Chair was unlike any other fantasy book because the author, Tad Williams, likes to write. I don’t mean he likes to write books. I mean he likes to write. He likes words. He likes their history and their sentiments. Williams likes prose. He likes to write wonderful, complex sentences with words you can really chew on like malachite and mooncalf. At the time, it was the best written fantasy book you could buy, probably the best since Tolkien, with the exception of the work of Ursula K. LeGuin, whose snappy prose is a joy to read. The Dragonbone Chair was (and is) a fantasy novel for people who love to read. It wasn’t a blood and guts adventure like the Conan books, or a racing adventure, whose prose just splashed across the page carelessly, like the work of Terry Brooks. It wasn’t really an adventure at all. It was an experience, where the old, tedious lines between good and evil were somewhat blurred. The familiar races of fantasy were complicated by racism and colonialism. It was a book not entirely meant to entertain. It was a book with ideas. It was a book that pulled away from the comforting dichotomies of the Tolkien mythos, with its grand vision of good versus evil. It was a book struggling to say something.
The world of Osten Ard is perilously close to ours. In fact, the book has more in common with Malory than Tolkien, although it’s impossible to imagine this book without Middle Earth. Osten Ard is a place that resembles our own much more than Middle Earth. It’s not an ancient past that was somehow better. It is a world of strife, filled with flawed characters, both good and bad. There are no heroes, not of the Aragorn type. They are flawed like Arthur, Gawain, Lancelot, and Gwenivere. It is easy to see why this book inspired Martin’s popular series. I see Jaime Lannister behind Josua, Williams’ sullen, one-handed prince.
It’s been over thirty years (my God!) since I’ve traveled with Binabik and Simon, but I’m happy to find old friends I had sadly forgotten. It’s good to find them again, still moody, still misunderstood, still clumsy, still wonderfully odd. I now understand much better than I did when I was 13 why this book was so important for fantasy–and how far this series looked ahead.