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A Room Full of Friends [Memory, Sorrow and Thorn by Tad Williams]

March 13, 2013
MST

Battered as befits my favourite books… and mismatched like almost every series I own. Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is actually a trilogy, but the last volume is so long that it had to be split in two in most editions.

Let me preface this by saying I might be just a little bit biased – The Dragonbone Chair was the first fantasy book I read, years before I even discovered Harry Potter, and I sometimes feel that the earlier I read a book, the more I like it.

But ten years have passed since the first time I devoured Stone of Farewell and To Green Angel Tower, and several years more since The Dragonbone Chair – ten years, and I don’t know how often I have read them in those years. Ten years, and I don’t know how many other books I’ve read in that time, books to compare Memory, Sorrow and Thorn against…

Ten years, and hundreds of books, and Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is still what everything else is judged against – still my unrivalled favourite. (Well, OK, it must share that honour with Ronia, but really, that’s comparing peas to pineapples.)

The one complaint against Memory, Sorrow and Thorn that I can remember reading is that it starts (too) slowly. The ones who complain about that are probably the same sort of obnoxious people who make a fuss at the restaurant because their food isn’t served quickly enough, or who start banging their cutlery on the table and demanding the main course instead of enjoying the appetizers.

Me, I enjoy every part, every page of those books. Cracking open one of them, I’ve recently realized, feels like curling up in an old, comfortable armchair. That happy little sigh, eyes drifting almost closed, all muscles relaxing as I settle against the cushions, into the familiar words…

Like my favourite reading spot, stained and cat-scratched, but oh so comfortable, my books look old and battered – the covers torn and taped back together, the spines creased and faded, the pages ink-stained, dog-eared and yellowed, but their fuzzy-soft edges feel so nice against my fingers that I can’t help stroking and cuddling the books like furry little animals…

reading chair

Memory, Sorrow and Thorn has become so entangled with my literary tastes that I can no longer even tell whether I like the books because they have all the elements I enjoy, or whether I enjoy these elements because the series has made me love them.

If there are vegetarians among my readers, I hope you’ll forgive me for always referring to the plot and setting as the meat and potatoes of a book (“tofu and potatoes” simply doesn’t have the same ring to it.)

The meat seems, at first, to be your standard roast of orphaned hero and search for magical weapons, but is also spiced with a multitude of subplots and a rather nice plot twist. I don’t want to say too much about the plot, though, partly because it is difficult not to give anything away, and partly because I don’t even know how to sum it up. An orphaned scullion forced to leave his home. Rivalling princes. Battles. Princesses. Journeys through the wilderness. Immortals. A wolf. A dragon. Wise old men. Magic mirrors. Ancient forests. Underground cities. Mysterious rhyming prophecies. And looming over everything, the threat of a supernatural enemy.

The elements might not be unique, but Tad (the only author I can call by his first name without feeling awkward) masterfully weaves them together, into a large and tangled web of a story. He spreads the threads of his story out over the entire world and brings them neatly back together. And if there are a few mysteries left unsolved, it is intentional, to show that things have happened and will continue to happen beyond the boundaries of the story.

But meat alone, no matter how deliciously cooked, doesn’t make for a satisfying meal. Just as potatoes lay the foundation for that (could be pasta or rice, too – a hardworking girl like me needs her carbs – but Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is simply the potato kind of book), the world of a fantasy book lays the foundation for a satisfying read.

I must admit that the first time I read Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, I was a little disappointed by the world of Osten Ard, because many of the countries, languages and religions are very closely modelled on the real world. At first, I found that lazy.

Now, I think it makes for a very realistic world and consistent cultures. None of that name mish-mash that is one of my pet peeves in fantasy – in each country of Osten Ard, the names and language have a distinct sound.

And while the basics are taken from the real world, it doesn’t mean Tad is lazy or lacking imagination. If he saves himself some work in painting the backdrop, he pays all that much more attention to the details: from the Hayholt’s jumble of buildings to the rope bridges of Mintahoq, from frozen Urmsheim to Tiamak’s treetop hut, from the Hall of Carvings at the  Taig to the Yasirá’s myriad butterflies, Osten Ard is full of vivid and unique places. And if Tad saves himself some work on languages and religions, he more than makes up for it with the Qanuc and Sithi, Niskies and Dwarrows, with the Norns, Hunën, Bukken, kilpa and ghants… All those places, all those peoples and creepy creatures are the spices that subtly change and improve an old, tried and tested “potato” recipe.

And in fact, the very thing that seemed lazy to me at first has now turned into a game, hunting down the origins of names and characters and events. Great fun, and it’s amazing how much there is to find!

reading chair

Magic, the salt of a fantasy book, is used sparingly, which is just how I like it. Just as salt can easily overpower all the flavours of a meal, too-generous use of magic in a book can easily overpower the plot and characters.

No danger of that in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, because the characters, lacking magical abilities, have to face their enemies with nothing but their wits and courage.

I would like to say that the characters – the vegetable side dishes of this delicious meal – are Tad’s strong point, but that would imply that he has a weak point (and I honestly don’t know what that would be). Even more than the places, the characters seem real and alive. The characters of other beloved books have lost some of that alive-ness over the years, but not Simon, Miriamele, Binabik, Josua, Isgrimnur, Tiamak, Rachel or Guthwulf, to name just a few. Every one of them feels like a real person, with strengths and dreams, but also flaws and fears, each of them perfectly imperfect.

There are a lot of characters, and just as I like meals with lots of vegetables, I like books with lots of characters. I even spent an entertaining day or two deciding which character was which vegetable. Most of them were pretty random, and if I had any reasons for assigning a particular vegetable to a character, they had as much to do with growing that plant as with the taste. Like Simon – the kitchen boy caught up in the quest to save the world. He is sweetcorn, because cornstalks are tall, as is he, and trying to grow sweetcorn was always as frustrating as trying to get Simon to do his chores. There’s also a reason why Princess Miriamele is a currant tomato, but explaining it would give some of the plot away, so I won’t. And then there’s Deornoth, who is dark-haired and delicious like an eggplant… I mean, eggplants aren’t dark-haired, but you get the idea. He’s not a major character, but the only one (in all the books I’ve ever read) that I’ve ever had a lasting crush on. Still do.

It is so hard not to ramble on about the characters, who are some of my oldest and dearest literary friends… but really, this post is getting long enough as it is, and if you’ve read the books, you already know them, and if you haven’t, you should go read them now, and I wouldn’t want to spoil the fun of meeting them for the first time!

Some people don’t like the multiple points of view, but for me, they’re actually an added appeal. Because even if I don’t like one (or a few) of them, there’s always someone else I can identify with. I’ve noticed, too, that as I’ve grown older, my perspective on certain characters has changed, which makes me think the books should appeal to a wide range of ages, too – the main character may be a teenager, but there are many other point of view characters who are not.

And even the bad guys have a personality beyond, “I’m eeeevil!” None of them suffer from what I call “Sauronitis” – being evil just for the sake of it. They may be deliciously creepy, but every one has a reason for what they do. And while there are two definite sides, not all the characters are definitely on one side or another.

Meat and potatoes and plenty of vegetables, and of course there’s also a bit of romance for dessert. It’s a small enough part that at an age when I didn’t care for romance, I could simply ignore it. Now, a decade older, I rather enjoy dessert, though!

MST

In this one case, I really tried to get matching books… but it was difficult enough to get the first part of To Green Angel Tower at all at the time, so I took whatever I could get.

But although I’ve already written so much, these are just the bare bones of why I love Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. Other books can have a good plot, a good world, good characters.

But there are also a few smaller elements that I need to truly enjoy a book.

Humour is a big one. A book without humour is like a meal without salad. After a while, meat, potatoes and cooked vegetables just begin to stick in my throat, and I need something crunchy and green before I can eat more, just as I need an occasional laugh to be able to stomach danger and tragedy and impending doom.

This is another thing Tad does really well, sprinkling humour into both dialogue and description. It’s just really hard to find lines that are still funny out of context. You’ll just have to take my word for it that “No. My mother named me Aditu.” is laugh-out-loud funny every time I read it.

“You, boy, devise questions like God makes flies and poor people – in droves.”

“a story whose philosophy is difficult, hmmm? At least for we Qanuc, who prefer both being what you call pagan, and being what I call alive.”

But Memory, Sorrow and Thorn doesn’t just make me laugh. It makes me cry, too. Some scenes still break my heart, every time I read them. I remember reading complaints about how George R.R. Martin kills of major characters in A Song of Ice and Fire. I wasn’t too shocked by any of them, not after the tears I’ve shed over Memory, Sorrow and Thorn.

It makes me laugh, it makes me cry, it makes me think… can it get any better? Yes, it can, because it has the one thing that has been missing from the Kingkiller Chronicle so far, the main reason why I don’t like that trilogy quite as much as Memory, Sorrow and Thorn: reunions. I’m a sucker for reunion scenes, the more tears and happy shouting the better, and Memory, Sorrow and Thorn has lots of them. They all make me smile, but there is a particular one at the end of the last chapter… if that one doesn’t make you tear up, you. Have. No. Heart.

Bhojujik mo qunquc

They’re also extremely quotable. There are so many lines I want to copy out into the notebooks I use to collect quotations. Some of them funny , some of them wise, some both…

There’s the line that has been embroidered on my backpack since 2008, to stave off homesickness:

“‘Bhojujik mo qunquc,’ as my people say.” (…) “‘ – If the bears do not eat you, it is home.'”

There’s the line I quote at apprentices when teaching them to handle sharp tools:

“Sharp it away, lad, sharp it away,” the burly guardsman said, making the blade skitter across the whetstone, “lest otherways ye’ll be a girl afore ye’re a man.”

There’s the line I quote at people when they ask why I chose a lowly, dirty-fingered job over a university degree and a better-paid, more prestigious job:

“One should treasure those humdrum tasks that keep the body occupied but leave the  mind and heart unfettered.”

There’s the proverb that has become my signature at the NaNoWriMo forums:

He who is certain he knows the ending of things when he is only just beginning them is either extremely wise or extremely foolish; no matter which is true, he is certainly an unhappy man, for he has put a knife in the heart of wonder.

And there’s the line, very close to the end, that always puts a smile on my face:

“Now, come, please. Come and join us. Up the corridor you have a room full of friends – some of them you don’t even know yet!”

This smile is in part because this is how I feel about these books: they are like a room full of friends (and a comfortable armchair). There is another reason, too… these words seem strangely prophetic… but that will be a story for another post…

dog-eared

A multitude of dog-eared pages, marking a multitude of quotes to be copied out… yes, I mistreat my books.

So, if you haven’t read Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, go get them and find yourself a comfortable chair (and no, you can’t have mine!).

And if you’ve read it and enjoyed it, I recommend looking at the group reread on the Tad Williams Message Board. It does sometimes descend into that forum’s characteristic silliness, but it’s also quite insightful. As I mentioned above, tracking down all the references to real-world history and mythology is an immensely fun game, and those threads is where it’s played!

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