Tad Williams: which book to start with?
By Oliver Johnson
Posted on May 1, 2019 in Books with tags Tad Williams
When discussing the work of Tad Williams, three words tend to crop up: ‘beloved’ (as in best-loved author); ‘warm hearted’ (his delight in creating empathic heroes and heroines); and ‘immersive’ (his ability to conjure massive, sweeping worlds rivalling Tolkien). ‘Vast’ might be a worthy fourth. I’m not sure if anyone has tried adding up the number of published words but if we assume the minimum length of any of his series books is 300,000 ( and many are much longer) my guess would be in excess of 5 million words all told. So where to begin?
Where it all began: The Dragonbone Chair (Book One in the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series)
The inspiration of George RR Martin’s later, multi-character, relationship-based epic fantasy is the starting place for many, maybe the majority of Tad fans. As at the beginning of any journey, there’s a bit of familiarisation before we can properly get going on the epic quest behind this book and its two (or three depending on how you read them) successors. Simon is a kitchen boy serving his time in the feudal household of the good King John in the Hayholt, the fortress at the heart of the Osten Ard empire. All is not well in the succession to the throne and there are dark forces conspiring to topple the empire. Simon is the unwitting dupe caught up and then cast out in the upheaval. He encounters Miriamele, John’s granddaughter, on the road. Both are now major actors in a cosmic battle between good and evil and the stage is perfectly set for the two further parts of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, Stone of Farewell and To Green Angel Tower (the latter so vast it is divided in two in paperback form – Siege and Storm). By the time you get to Dragonbone’s climactic scene, a battle with a dragon in the frozen north, it’s quite inconceivable you won’t be fully paid up for the rest of an amazing trip.
A quick introduction to Osten Ard: The Heart of What Was Lost (An Osten Ard Novel)
But there is now a shorter way into the Osten Ard world. As a bridging book between To Green Angel Tower and The Witchwood Crown, the first book of the second trilogy, we have The Heart of What Was Lost. At 100,000 it’s a relative minnow in the Tad writerverse. It starts just after the end of the action of To Green Angel and introduces some of the characters who will appear in The Witchwood Crown, 30 years later in the series timeline…
It is possible that you might want to plunge straight into The Last King of Osten Ard trilogy. There is, cunningly, a thirty year gap between the publication of the first in the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn and The Last King Series, and also a parallel thirty year gap in the actual narrative of Simon and Miriamele. This thirty year gap reflected my experiences as a reader and person. Old and wiser when I stared the second trilogy, I reacted differently to The Witchwood Crown than I did to the youthful exuberance of The Dragonbone Chair all those years ago. Yes, there is a lot of backstory in The Witchwood Crown, but not enough to get in the way of what is, in its own right, a superb, extended , world-building piece of epic fantasy. Certainly as the series continues, new characters take on a life of their own, while the old favourites become burnished and more interesting with time, as I hope we older folk do, in real life.
However, there may be some who would like to taste Tad’s writing before buying the company. For them I have two suggestions:
The beloved debut novel: Tailchaser’s Song
Tad’s first ever book and his answer to many an anthropomorphic fantasy: Redwall, Duncton Wood, Narnia, Watership Down etc. Here we have talking, walking, questing cats — for readers who believe cats are the first and most important species (all Hodderscape readers?). A cat Lord of the Rings with accompanying mythology, cat language etc.
Non-cat fanciers (do they exist?) might like to turn their attention to:
The fantastical standalone novel: The War of the Flowers
Widely recognised as Tad’s most powerful single volume work set in a parallel universe (our world and Faerie). The powerful Faeries, whose major houses are designated by flower names, are uncertain what to do about the human race. Our half human, half faerie protagonist, Theo Vilmos, fleeing unhappiness in our world, must undergo a series of trials and challenges before rediscovering happiness in the realms beyond.
The science fiction masterpiece: City of Golden Shadow (Book One in the Otherland series)
Those of you who are perhaps not quite into the idea of a parallel universe or epic fantasy and with a yen for virtual reality and Westworld might want to explore the science fictional Otherland series. A vast, sprawling tetralogy encompassing much of human history and culture. It has attracted a cult following and is a MMORPG.
The urban fantasy adventure: The Dirty Streets of Heaven (Book One in the Bobby Dollar Trilogy)
Finally, another side of Tad altogether. After the massive Shadowmarch series of epic fantasies, Tad segued to urban fantasy: the Bobby Dollar series tells the story of an angel advocate sent to argue whether the recently dead should go to heaven or hell with a devil advocate. Throw in the Lord of Hell’s girlfriend who he has a crush on and you’re in for a heady mix of wisecracking Chandlerism and high stakes sleuthing in the fiery realms. These are books that contain pretty much everything.
Want to devour them all? Here’s a handy series guide.