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Book Review: The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams

Title: The Dragonbone Chair

Author: Tad Williams

Series: Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: A war fueled by the powers of dark sorcery is about to engulf the peaceful land of Osten Ard—for Prester John, the High King, lies dying. And with his death, the Storm King, the undead ruler of the elf-like Sithi, seizes the chance to regain his lost realm through a pact with the newly ascended king. Knowing the consequences of this bargain, the king’s younger brother joins with a small, scattered group of scholars, the League of the Scroll, to confront the true danger threatening Osten Ard. Simon, a kitchen boy from the royal castle unknowingly apprenticed to a member of this League, will be sent on a quest that offers the only hope of salvation, a deadly riddle concerning long-lost swords of power. Compelled by fate and perilous magics, he must leave the only home he’s ever known and face enemies more terrifying than Osten Ard has ever seen, even as the land itself begins to die. -Goodreads

The Review:

This review is going to be more of a non-spoiler reading log. I hope you enjoy this journey a “tad” more than I did the one in the book.

Merely mentioning Dragonbone Chair in a recent video about all the unread books on my shelves, I was bombarded with a slew of comments saying I needed to read it ASAP. So I bumped it up a few years in the priority list and gave it a go.

Of all the popular classic fantasy, I think Williams is the only one I hadn’t read something from. I was excited to dive in. But I was also aware that classic fantasy has a tendency to be a bit long-winded and that the joy is often in the journey itself rather than in the destination. I’m not a patient reader, so with comments like “it takes a while to get going,” you can see how this may not be a good match for my tastes right from the start.

But it’s a classic. And beloved by many book friends who love a lot of the same stuff I do. So I gave it a go.

Truthfully, the beginning was about what I’d expected. Very slowly paced and all about immersing the reader in the often mundane aspects of castle life. The writing immediately jumped out to me as beautiful, relaxed, and well-flowing. Like getting a warm hug from your book. I really liked that aspect, so I was content to sit back and enjoy the journey for once. Then some amazing stuff happened for about one chapter and I was hooked!

…And then the novel proceeded to take over 120 pages for X character to get from point A to point B, and I was so disengaged that I started asking, “uh.. exactly when does this get better?”

I was truthfully considering a DNF. But remembering how relatively slow Hobb’s initial Farseer Trilogy was at first, and how many people abandon it before the magic really starts happening, I felt like there was a similar situation here, and if I just kept reading, eventually I’d see why so many love this series.

But, you see, there’s one distinct difference between my experience with this series and Hobb’s. I don’t mind slow plot progression in books as long as there’s a lot of deep character exploration. I’m totally on board for that type of story. However, with the Dragonbone Chair, the characters were interesting, but I really didn’t get a ton of depth from them. Their actions went a long ways towards developing character near the end, but for most of the book I liked them but didn’t feel particularly connected to them.

The overall handling of characters was weird for me. So, we get several hundred pages more or less focused on just a handful of people. I enjoyed reading about them quite a bit. And if nothing else got a connection of familiarity with them. However, we went from a handful of characters doing not much of anything but talking, to a massive influx of new people to keep track of without much time at all to build a connection with them. It felt like I’d picked up a totally different book at about the 75% mark. I wasn’t ready to keep track of so many names, and by the time I realized I needed to, I was already a bit lost.

So the story got way more interesting towards the end of the book, but any connection I had to most of the characters got lost in the jumble. To the point where something would happen to someone and my first thought would be, “holy $#%?, I didn’t even realize they were in this scene (or existed at all, in some cases).” Oye.

Perhaps my level of disengagement near the end was a result of how passive I already felt about the book up to that point.

Here’s the thing. I feel like I’m standing back, admiring a painting called “Blue Explosion,” appreciating that it’s a brilliant work of art and more or less enjoying looking at it, but can’t shake the thought, “but, does it really need that much blue?” The Dragonbone Chair is supposed to make you feel like you’re sitting around a campfire getting an epic tale told to you. It’s supposed to be all about the journey and the lore. While I’m over here wishing the plot had been more concise and the pacing more evenly distributed. That was a really long-winded way of saying that it just wasn’t written for my personal tastes but was still very well done.

So where do I go from here? Despite the rapid-fire of characters near the end, I found myself very interested in the politics. The battle scenes were good. I liked the quest aspect, even though I still couldn’t tell you exactly who’s on it or what their individual motives are. I find myself masochisticly willing to dive into the next book to see if my issues carry over. Perhaps it will keep the same decent momentum and all I need to do is care enough to keep the characters straight.

I started this book as a Buddy Read in my Goodreads group with a bunch of people. We lost a few right out the gate, but then they started dropping like flies until only myself and two others remained. Plodding diligently. We’ve agreed we’ll need the commitment of a BR to get to the next one and it’s currently scheduled for April. I’m still not sure I want to work that hard to read hundreds more pages for a series I’m just okay about atm. But that glimmer of potential is keeping me around. For now.

Recommendations: this is a beloved classic fantasy that would be a great match for those who love Tolkien and Jordan (…I’m not one of those people). It’s also the series that inspired George R.R. Martin, and you can totally see bits of influence throughout. The writing is beautiful and it’s more about the journey than the destination. It’s perhaps is a mite less engaging than I want, but I know it will work well for more patient readers.

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