Tag Archives: The Last King of Osten Ard

Learning from the masters: @TadWilliams: contrast and texture #amwriting

tadwilliams-the-heart-of-what-was-lostOne of my favorite authors is Tad Williams, who wrote the watershed series, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. To my eternal joy, he has set another series of books in the world of Osten Ard. The first installment, The Heart of What Was Lost, is set to launch on January 3, 2017.

I have it on pre-order, as you might imagine—a Happy New Year present to me.

I became a confirmed fan of epic fantasy in 1988 when I first entered this world of Osten Ard and the books of Tad Williams. Each character was deserving of a novel, and the diverse races whose cultures were so clearly shown fascinated me. The arrogance some members of each race have with regard to their innate superiority struck me as illustrating a truth about the real world, something the Buddha once said: “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.”  

Why did I become so captivated by Tad Williams’ work in the original series?

Contrast.

It is well-written, with harsh, beautiful prose, but more importantly an entire world is encapsulated in those pages. It is built from both good and evil, with all the many grey places between those two absolutes clearly defined. For each misery, some small glimmer of hope is introduced, offering a reason for the characters to keep struggling.

Tad Williams created the world of Osten Ard masterfully, exploring it through the diverse people’s thoughts and conversations. He used their impressions to show the setting, the history, and the core of the conflict. He started out slow, introducing Simon Mooncalf (Seoman) and the other players, showing a certain amount of background by Simon’s wandering path through the various places in his familiar environment.

Simon Mooncalf is an orphaned kitchen boy, serving in the immense castle, the Hayholt. He is in service to King John Presbyter, but he is a dreamer, unable to concentrate on the mundane tasks he’s been given. With the reputation of being an idiot, his fortunes change when he is apprenticed to the good Doctor Morgenes, the castle’s healer and wizard.

Green_Angel_Tower_P1Unfortunately, the king dies. Many dark, terrible events transpire, and ultimately Simon finds himself alone and on the run, carrying Dr. Morgenes’ true biography of the good King John.

The action then intensifies, as do Simon’s struggles. He finds friends who help him along the way, but they are also in danger. Love, friendship, and loyalty are tested when thrown against a lust for power, a desire for complete domination, and the endless desire of the ultimate mastermind behind the war, Ineluki, the immortal Storm King.

Tad Williams uses contrast. He opens in a place that feels comfortable and familiar, a place where food is plentiful and cats are lazy. He then slingshots the reader into a world of violence and darkness, hunger and fear. Simon is lost, alone, helpless, and terrified. Despite his being an orphan, he has only known comfort and now his life of deprivation is more than he can bear.

When I first began reading the series, it was clear to me that Tad Williams understood a fundamental truth of life: if you have never felt hunger, you can never understand what it is to have plenty. In the same context, if you have never known sorrow, how can you know joy? The contrasts of life are the flavors, the textures that give it meaning.

Since we are waxing philosophical, the Buddha also offered this morsel of wisdom for authors to consider, “There has to be evil so that good can prove its purity above it.”  

That contrast of good and evil is a fundamental truth for all writers of traditional fantasy fiction to consider when devising plots. It is one that J.R.R. Tolkien understood quite clearly. After all, what would have been the point of Frodo and Sam going to the depths of Mordor, suffering the hardships they endured if not to destroy the One Ring and negate the power of Sauron? And why would they do this, if Sauron was not the embodiment of evil?

In both the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, we have two of the most enduring works of modern fiction. Both feature an epic quest where through it all, we have joy and contentment sharply contrasted with deprivation and loss, drawing us in and inspiring the deepest emotions.

This use of contrast is why Tolkien’s work is the foundation upon which modern epic fantasy is built. It’s also why Tad William’s work changed the way people saw the genre of epic fantasy, turning it into hard fantasy. The works of these authors inspired a generation of authors: George R.R. Martin and  Patrick Rothfuss, to name just two of the more famous.

To_Green_Angel_Tower

In my own current work (as in all my work), good people have found themselves in bad situations. It’s my task to demonstrate the beauty of life through the drama, heartache, and violence.

Employing contrast gives texture to the fabric of a narrative. My intention is to use the emotions that are experienced when joys are contrasted against sorrows to draw the reader in. If I do this right, my readers will think about this story and these characters long after it has ended.

As a writer, if I can create a tale in which the reader experiences the full gamut of human emotion, I will have done my job.  The longer I am at this craft, the more I see that the rest of my life will be a training ground, teaching me new things, widening my writing horizons everyday. Reading and analyzing the works of the masters is a joy and a privilege, and is a necessary component of my education in the craft of writing.

1 Comment

Filed under writing

Comfort books, a three-course meal: 1st course, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn

Dragonbone_ChairI’ve been reading a lot lately. I know, you’re surprised, right? Mostly I’ve been revisiting my old favorites. I have a group of what I call “comfort books.”  That is not to say these books are comfortable, because they’re quite the opposite: challenging, involving,  and at times a little horrifying. But they are books that I can go back to again and again and never be disappointed in either the writing or the tale. I always find some new thing, along with the themes and characters that enchanted me the first time I read them.

These are the books that inspired me to write, not because I thought I could write better, but because these authors were unable to keep up with my reading demand. So, in the lull between “real books” I began writing the stories I wanted to read. Today begins  the first course of this three-course meal. Two more will follow!

First up is Tad Williams’ epic masterpiece, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. This tale was so large he couldn’t fit it all into one book. Each book is quite large, and believe me, there is no fluff in any of them.

Stone_of_FarewellIn this gripping tale, Williams takes a traditional tale of a kitchen-boy turned hero, and turns it sideways, giving it depth and power. He puts his protagonist, who begins as Simon Mooncalf, though hell,forging strength of character and courage in a boy who always dreamed of adventure. Simon the dreamer is real, human; a man with flaws as well as strengths. As a boy he is afraid, but he is courageous when it counts. And as a warrior, Simon Snowlock is strong, and not always forgiving. He is a multilayered hero, as is the story in which he is set.

The quest for the swords of power, and the larger quest to save Osten Ard from the grip of Ineluki, the Storm King, are enclosed within the real dramas of human (and not-so-human) affairs.

What made this  series of books strike such a chord within me in the first place, was the way the world of Osten Ard reflects the history and folklore of our world. Several characters’ elements and experiences mirror the legends and mythology of Great Britain and other European cultures. I felt I knew these societies, and yet they were seen through a fractured mirror, similar, yet so different.

At the outset, the Erkynlanders are are the dominant society, and are ruled by King John Presbyter, also known as Prester John. He united them, but they’re still slightly clan-based and resemble the early medieval English of around the fifth to seventh centuries, with names that are  Saxon-ish and Biblical. It is a castle-based, feudal society right out of the dark ages. They have a religion that is similar to Christianity, as if they are a parallel reality.

To_Green_Angel_TowerPrester John is the man who united Osten Ard, and carved their society, but he is dying. Like the great Plantagenet kings of our history, he has two strong sons who have a deep-rooted quarrel, and this sets up the conflict that evolves and encompasses an entire world.

After his death, the dark secrets of Prester John’s own checkered history drive the plot, sweeping Simon up in events which he has no control over.  His growth over the course of this series makes a gripping, compelling story, as does the parallel story of Miriamele, Prester John’s granddaughter.

Green_Angel_Tower_P1The other people of Osten Ard who have recognizable real-world parallels in their names and cultures, and who have strong, absorbing story-lines are:

Binabik—a Qanuc (based on Inuit, or Eskimo)

Jiriki—Sithi (distinct from a branch of their culture, the Norns, who are the root antagonists.  Based on Asian, Japanese) Ineluki, the Storm King is Norn.

Maegwin—Hernystiri (Celtic, perhaps Irish or Welsh)

Sir Camaris—Nabbanai: I just fell in love with this tragic man. These people felt reminiscent of Renaissance Italy, quite Roman

Tiamak—Wrannamen: Indigenous tribal  people who live close to the earth,

Sludig—Rimmersmen: Norse and early Germanic , quite Viking

Also included is another culture, the Thrithings: Horse nomads, reminiscent of the Mongols.

This is not a series you can read in a day or even a week. It is easy to get completely caught up in this tale, to the point that you forget to eat, and don’t hear when the dog wants out. I originally bought The Dragonbone Chair for the artwork on the cover. It was created by the brilliant fantasy artist, Michael Whelan. All the covers in this series are incomparable, and to my great joy, so was the story within.

TadWilliams200And the best part is: Tad is writing another trilogy based in Osten Ard, set thirty years later. Quote from his blogpost of April 3, 2014 : “I guess the cat has been debagged. Several of you have seen and shared the news that, yes, I am returning to Osten Ard for a series of books called (collectively) “The Last King of Osten Ard”. It will feature many of the same characters a generation later (and many new ones as well). The book titles will be (as of now):

The Witchwood Crown
Empire of Grass
The Navigator’s Children

This is assuming I don’t do my normal try-to-squeeze-two-books-into-the-last-volume trick.”

I don’t care how you do it Tad. I am just glad you are still young, and still writing amazing books in a kijillion settings. I am waiting patiently for the emergence of this series. Do your crazy thing, madman! Take your time and do it right! I will have it on pre-order the minute it becomes available, and when it arrives on my doorstep I will dance all the way to my cozy sofa, where I will sit and read until I am forced to set the book down in order to feed the hubby. Then I will continue reading until the next meal must be served.

2 Comments

Filed under Adventure, Battles, blogging, Books, Dragons, Fairies, Fantasy, Humor, Literature, Publishing, Romance, Self Publishing, writer, writing