Cold and Darkness and a Warm Heart [The Heart of What Was Lost, by Tad Williams]
(After having the honour of reading the manuscript and offering some thoughts about it, I’m so glad read the final version and to be able to speak openly about it at last.)
On the surface, this book seems cold and dark, a perfect read for snowy January nights. But underneath the grimness of war, of death and destruction, the story has a warm and hopeful heart, as Tad’s books always do.
When we left Osten Ard at the end of To Green Angel Tower – just recently for the characters, years or even decades ago for many of us readers – it was on a bright and hopeful note. But now that we return, we also return to the cold of the Storm King’s magical winter and to the brutality of war, neither of which has ended suddenly after the battle at the Hayholt.
The Norns may have suffered grievous losses, but the survivors are fleeing back to Nakkiga, while the humans are – understandably – unwilling to let them regroup and gather strength for another war.
And so we find ourselves with Duke Isgrimnur and his army (and in particular, the Perdruinese soldiers Porto and Endri) pursuing them all the way to the gates of Nakkiga.
But we also find ourselves with the Norns, fleeing and then trying to defend their mountain home.
Memory, Sorrow and Thorn might have given us glimpses of the Norns sometimes, but they always had a distant feel to them, nothing like the intimacy with which we get to know Host Foreman Viyeki sey-Enduya.
Getting to know him, with his hopes and fears, seeing the Norns and Nakkiga through his eyes, it becomes difficult to root for the humans, to hope for their victory. Which is not to say that Norn society is one I would like to live in – no way! – but even so, they are people now, rather than the incomprehensible evil.
That is, for me, the big difference to Memory, Sorrow and Thorn – while the antagonists in those books had their reasons for doing what they did, and were not evil in their own eyes, they were still very clearly the antagonists. But now, it’s not so easy to pick a side.
I remember Tad saying that once that, since George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire was a reaction to Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, his plan for The Last King of Osten Ard was to “keep the conversation going”.
I think I do see some of that influence in The Heart of What Was Lost, in how the story generally feels darker, and in how both sides of the conflict have equally valid reasons to fight.
And yet, it still feels like a brighter, warmer story than A Song of Ice and Fire – admittedly, it’s been years since I read the books, and I’ve only seen two seasons of Game of Thrones so far, but it all feels so hopeless, with everyone either dying or turning out to be awful, or both.
That’s never the case with Tad’s books. People die, and die in awful ways, but there are also true friendships like the one between Porto and Endri, there are people like Yaarike mentoring their successors, willing to make drastic changes to ensure the survival of their people, like Suno’ku, there are people willing to negotiate, like Isgrimnur.
And even if all of these can’t bring about a happy ending, the knowledge that all these people exist, and that there are true friendship and love and honour, that is the warm heart of the book, that is what makes me feel hopeful for Osten Ard. (And more hopeful even for our own world.)