Tad Williams’ Empire of Grass Is a Melancholy Fantasy Epic

Detail of Michael Whelan’s cover painting for Empire of Grass

When Tad Williams first announced plans for a new trilogy returning to Osten Ard—the setting of his landmark Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy—after over two decades away, I was nearly euphoric with excitement. Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is one of modern fantasy’s finest epics, and its influence has rippled through the genre since its release in the late ’80s—chiefly, legend holds it was what convinced George R.R. Martin to sit down and write A Game of Thrones, thus launching a major resurgence of fantasy in mainstream culture.

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn has maintained a truly impressive legacy, and the release of its sequel trilogy, The Last King of Osten Ard, has given fans and newcomers alike an opportunity to discover (or reacquaint themselves with) the beauty of Williams’ world. The Witchwood Crown, the first volume of The Last King of Osten Ard, was greeted no small amount of excitement by readers. But I admit I also felt some trepidation. How many times—especially in our recent, revival-obsessed pop culture—have fans been burned by creators returning to a beloved setting or series and failing to recapture what made the original so amazing? Williams is a master writer and storyteller, but 25 years is a long time to spend away from the texture, tone, and feel of a beloved series.Needless to say, I shouldn’t have doubted Williams.

The Witchwood Crown was just as sprawling and thematically interesting as its predecessor—not just another adventure in a familiar world, but a new experience enriched by what came before, building upon Williams’ work in a way that elevated the classic trilogy to new heights.

In my review of The Witchwood Crown for Barnes & Noble I said:

Williams’ prose, characterization, and worldbuilding are top-notch, as always… the return to Osten Ard is so seamless, it is difficult to believe that 30 years have passed since the story began. Like Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, The Last King of Osten Ard is shaping up to be an exploration of what happens to people—on a personal, societal, and political level—in the aftermath of war. Williams’ injects [the novel] with the same aged and thoughtful writing that gave the original trilogy its trademark air of melancholy, creating a lovely sense of reverberation for those of us who’ve grown up—and grown old—in this world.

When opening Empire of Grass, I was visited by familiar emotions. The Witchwood Crown was so satisfying. Could Empire of Grass continue to impress, or would it begin to retread familiar ground?

Happily for readers, the result is much the same the second time around: Empire of Grass not only meets expectations, but surpasses them in almost all ways. Few authors manage to write a series with as much depth and relevance as Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn once in a career. Williams is two-thirds of the way through doing it twice. [Editor’s note: Fans of Williams’ Otherland, feel free to pipe up in the comments.]

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn was about the build-up to war, and how that affects people on a personal and societal level. The Last King of Osten Ard is set during the supposedly peaceful years after the war’s end, and via Williams’ trademark ability to weave dozens of themes into a dazzling, multi-layered tapestry, it reveals how a power vacuum and the difficultly of enacting change is anything but sure and safe.

In The Witchwood Crown, we begin to see the unravelling of Simon and Miriamele’s peaceful rule. Though they are benevolent leaders, the lands under their control are not at peace, but chafing at the possibility of greater freedom and independence. Little progress seems to have occurred in the decades since the climax of the original trilogy, and some might wonder at the monarch’s complacency. The Last King of Osten Ard is a portentous title, and Empire of Grass further reveals how Simon and Miriamele’s rule over Osten Ard is perhaps not the start of a new dynasty, but the end of an old story—a transition to a brave new world. Events set up in The Witchwood Crown begin to take more recognizable shape here, and the threat to Osten Ard appears just as dire as it was at the height of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.

I’ve long associated Williams’ Osten Ard stories with a feeling of melancholy; something about the slow atrophy of the Sithi and the Norns, and humanity’s fight against time, strikes me as profoundly sad. So often, epic fantasy focuses on the press toward something brighter—the resurgence of a golden past, when things were better and technology or magic were in ascendency. Osten Ard is different. Since the arrival of men and their iron weapons, Williams’ world has been in slow decline. It’s impossible to read Empire of Grass and not notice the way Simon and Miriamele’s peace, so hard-won, is giving way to renewed chaos.

Like our willingness to turn a blind eye toward climate change, rumors of Queen Utuk’ku’s return to Osten Ard, and the impending invasion of human lands by her army of Norns, are met with apathy, scorn, and doubt by many who would prefer to turn their energies and attentions to personal conflicts. In that way lies only defeat—not a return to a glorious past, but a continuation of the death and destruction that has plagued the land since the first meeting between the Gardenborn and the iron-bearing humans from the west. Empire of Grass is an examination of colonialism’s long, bloody reach, and of how even the greatest empires eventually eat themselves.

It’s remarkable that Williams can add so much volume to a world already as rich and deeply explored as this one—layers upon layers of worldbuilding enriches the reader experience immeasurably, while also seeding questions about the truth of the previous trilogy’s “happy ending.”

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is in fact often criticized for its ending, which sees Simon take the throne as Miriamele’s husband. For a trilogy with such thematic complexity, the prototypical fairy-tale fade-out seems a little too easy. But by the mid-point of Empire of Grass, Williams has done a wonderful job reexamining Miriamele and Simon’s strengths and weaknesses as monarchs, illustrating the way their inherent goodness both strengthens and weakens the realm. (Even as an older man, Simon’s low-class upbringing has a direct effect on his rule, for good or ill. The novel explores the complex marital challenges the couple faces—from the death of their son and daughter-in-law, to being forced to separate in an effort to save their realm.

Over the course of these new books, my opinion of the previous trilogy’s ending has favorably evolved. It’s clear now that ending was only a pause, concluding one set of challenges for Miriamele and Simon—those most recognizable to trope-y epic fantasy heroes and heroines. Now, they face a new and unprecedented set of challenges. It’s incredibly refreshing to see these characters that we got to know as children grow up into adults with problems ranging from marital boredom to royal responsibility. Williams earns this complexity, capturing the nuance and depth of a long-term marriages.

While characterization and theme have always been my favorite elements of these novels, they are wrapped up in some of the genre’s best worldbuilding, politicking, action, and plotting—qualities on fine display throughout Empire of Grass. Where The Witchwood Crown was a bit of a slow burn, the stakes raise immeasurably in the trilogy’s second volume, with the characters in peril, both personally and at large. The last book ended with its major players blown to separate corners of Osten Ard, pursuing various quests that appear unconnected, but start to tie together in surprising ways throughout Empire of Grass.

The growing threat of the Norns in the north provides a grand, sweeping threat, enough to excite any ardent epic fantasy fan. Meanwhile at the Hayholt, seat of Osten Ard’s monarchy, the king’s trusted advisor hides a murderous secret; Tiamak the scholar delves into troubling rumors about an ancient dark magic; and Miriamele leaves the castle’s safety on a journey south that brings with it many secrets and dark memories. Like his grandfather a lifetime ago, Prince Morgan is lost in the dark Aldheorte forest, cast out by the mysterious Sithi, his companion and trusted friend Eolair captured by bandits.

To use a cliche, this is a book fit to be used as a door stop, but every page is packed with conflict and the deepest lore this side of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. It is, of course, a middle volume, which means it falls prey to a predictable set of criticisms (it doesn’t quite have a beginning or an end, and finishing it will leave you desperate for the concluding volume), but it does not suffer for an exciting, consequential story.

Unlike The Witchwood Crown, what Empire of Grass is not is a suitable starting point for new readers. Its picks up in the immediate aftermath of the previous book, and while Williams’ does a good job of reminding readers of those events—beginning with a long and detailed synopsis of The Witchwood Crown, a trend I would like to see continue in all big, fat fantasy series—it’s all too much . Even if a fresh-eyed reader could keep up with the plot, they’d be missing out on way too much important context.

At this point, Williams’ readers likely know exactly what to expect from Empire of Grass, and the book delivers on all points. It’s a sprawling, melancholic epic exploring themes of post-war colonialism, aging, regret, and responsibility. Continuing the story of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn was no small feat for Williams, but the fact that this new trilogy stands toe-to-toe with the original is remarkable. Empire of Grass is sure to be one of the year’s best books, and additional proof that Tad Williams stands with the best fantasists of his generation.

Empire of Grass is available now.

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