The Witchwood Crown Review: A Return to the World That Inspired Game of Thrones

Whether you've read The Dragonbone Chair or not, Tad Williams' return to this world is an epic saga for anyone who likes high fantasy.

Tad Williams is at it again. His new book finds novel angles in familiar territory, recapturing the world of the Storm King’s War for the start of a new saga. The first novel in the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series, The Dragonbone Chair,was published back in 1988, inspiring authors like George R.R. Martin to write their own epic fantasy series. The last in the trilogy, To Green Angel Tower, was published in 1993. The return to this fictional world has been a long time in the making.

The Witchwood Crown follows some of the same characters 30 years later, but introduces some new, younger characters to the mix. You can jump into this book without having read the previous three, but be prepared to be inundated with names of people, lands, and traditions that will all be hard to keep track of at once. Persevere, and you’ll have a pretty good grasp on all but the most obscure references. And, in classic fantasy novel tradition, there’s maps and an appendix to help you follow along.

A lot takes place in this massive book that clocks in at 736 pages. That’s partly due to the shifting viewpoint and globe-hopping between chapters. Primarily we follow the Erkynlanders (King Simon, Queen Miriamele, Prince Morgan), the immortal Hikeda’ya or Norns (Viyeki, Nezeru, Tzoja), and sparse chapters that detail the struggles of the nomadic Thrithings-folk.

The story is split amongst these viewpoints, as the Hikeda’ya Queen awakens from a coma-like recuperative sleep, and they decide the time has arrived to move against the mortal people of the world again. The Norns, you see, are still sore that they lost the war to mortals many years ago. They wish to restore themselves to their former glory and don’t much care for anyone who doesn’t look like them.

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The people of Erkynland fear the rumors that the “White Foxes” are on the move again. Tensions are so high you could cut them with a knife. Part of the King and Queen’s worries lie in their grandson, Morgan, their sole heir who has more interest in women and booze than affairs of state.

One of the most poignant quotes I pulled from the book was right before a battle, as King Simon addresses young singer Rinan. Simon had yelled at Rinan for singing songs about him in the past, then felt compelled to explain:

You see, lad, there’s the world in songs and stories, and then there’s the world that actually happens to you. And they’re not the same. Even the songs that are about real things — songs that are mostly true, I mean — they’re about people thinking about those things afterward.

Simon is very much grounded because of his past. He doesn’t appreciate the glorifying of his past heroic deeds because he started out as a simple kitchen boy. Simon and Miriamele’s relationship and rule are stable, wholesome and not without a sense of humor. These are the easy “good guys” to root for. It’s from this we can base the moral compass of the world, because the Norns and Sithi are more extreme in their belief systems.

The Norns are very entitled, even though they were nearly wiped out by mortals in a past war. They hide themselves away underground, leading to the sickly white skin tone that gains them the derogatory term “White Foxes” by those Erkynlanders.

The Sithi are opposites of the Norns, but not altogether easy to get along with. Recent events have made them distrustful of mortals, which makes what should have been a likely alliance a very tenuous reunion.

(cover illustration, “Darkness over Hayolt” by Michael Whelan)

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The book is a slow boil, each part like a new portion of a musical composition in a different key but inevitably builds to the conclusion. This isn’t your typical fantasy novel that ends in a war between feuding nations, though it seems that’s where it inevitably will lead in successive books. (The Witchwood Crownis part one in a planned trilogy.) Instead, we have several climaxes for our different characters, leaving them in precarious positions and begging the question of what will happen next.

That’s not to say that things don’t happen in the rest of the book. There’s revelations, voyages, disputes, battles, stealth, and so much treachery. Sometimes, the more interesting chapters are those that took a step back from the rising tensions between mortals and Norns to take a look at the migratory Thrithings clans or the point of view of a slave. These portions fill out a rich world populated with characters that compliment each other.

A number of viewpoint characters hold back information that will have dire consequences, if not in this book then later on in the series. Morgan comes upon a few unsettling situations that he doesn’t divulge to his royal grandparents. A monk, simply filling a library in honor of the King and Queen’s deceased son, stumbles upon a banned — and purportedly dangerous — book. Nezeru has to lie to save her life. Lies are sometimes needed to bring about truth.

Nezeru makes a profound character change, and is one to watch. She is one of the Queen’s Talons, but all that changes during a mission in the field. She purposefully misses the killing blow on her victim and is punished for it. Nezeru is half mortal and her hesitation lands her in deep trouble.

Nezeru starts questioning how the Norns do things. That is amplified when her party is joined by mortal Queen’s huntsman Jarnulf. He’s pretty bold for being a mortal among immortals, and he says more than enough to get himself in peril among his Norn traveling companions, who don’t want him around.

Even Viyeki, her Norn father, shows great change. He holds a nice title being High Magister of the Order of Builders, but his steadfast beliefs in the Norn way of life are chipped away. Several notable plot points happen, but there’s is a pivotal moment near the end of the book that really sells the change.

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Viyeki is out in the world on the Queen’s business, and a light rain begins to fall. He marvels at the sensation, and how much different life is when not stuck belowground: “What would it be like, he wondered, to live always beneath the sky like this?”

Throughout the sometimes ponderous 700+ pages, you can’t help but grow fond of these characters. I think of Morgan and his drunken exploits which later lead to profound insight. I also think of Nezeru, becoming more independent the further she travels. With each switch of the chapter we get another viewpoint and another thread to follow.

It’s quite the tapestry that Tad Williams has woven. If you like fantasy that doesn’t hit you over the head with magic spells, or world-spanning tales with numerous rich characters, you’ll enjoy what Williams has brought to the table here. I know I did.

The Witchwood Crown is now available to buy via Amazon.