Tad Williams – The Dragonbone Chair (1988) Review

Series: Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, book 1.


The Dragonbone Chair is the kind of epic fantasy that is perfect for losing yourself in a fantasy world; for burrowing into the world-building and wrapping the familiar fantasy tropes around you like a warm blanket. No need to read online explanations of pretentious books with contorted literary styles. Just follow the kitchen-boy to hero journey, brought to you with a pleasant, colourful prose style with some interesting descriptive flourishes and good-natured humour.

This series had been described to me as the Missing Link between Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. And certainly, it has the elves and trolls and the kind of in-world history of the Lord of the Rings (while not being a blatant ripoff like The Sword of Shannara or The Eye of the World), and also has the grimmer political infighting of Game of Thrones …but the first book that came to mind as I read this, above all others, was T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. Especially in the first 200 pages. The young boy working in the kitchen and the wizard figure who adopts him as an apprentice are very much like Arthur and Merlin in The Sword in the Stone. The Dragonbone Chair is a Bildungsroman in a way that Tolkien’s and Martin’s are not. Naturally, there are also similarities to other fantasy works inspired why White and Tolkien, like Raymond E. Feist’s Magician (1982).

One thing that jumps out about Williams’ world-building is a strong presence of religion. Not just in the world, but in the writing, and how often the characters refer to it. It’s a realistic reflection of our medieval European past, but what struck me was that other series like The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire do this much less strongly. What made it so conspicuous was that in The Dragonbone Chair we’re talking Christianity in all but name. Christ is given a different name, but beyond that it is precisely the same as we know it. Now, Williams said in interviews that he did this on purpose so as to give the readers something familiar to hold on to, so that they don’t get overloaded with world-building right from the start. All the same, Williams starts his novel with a real info-dump. Master Morgenes literally sits down in a chair in front of Simon and explains the history of the world and the elves over the span of a few chapters. Had Williams spread out this information better in the narrative, then it wouldn’t have been necessary to give the reader familiar elements in the first place.

For the first 200 pages, nothing much happens. Simon learns how to write, sweeps floors, tries to flirt with a maid, plucks mushrooms, climbs a tower. All the while, political players are introduced to us, and some of their conflicts. Here, Williams’ writing has a kind of obviousness to it. How do we know that the evil wizard is bad? Is it because he dresses in red and murders a puppy in the first scene we see him? How do we know that the duke of the vikings is honourable? Is it because he is a big, hearty man and says things like “I don’t like intrigues! Give me an axe!” Very little of this has a direct impact on Simon, so it feels like our main character is just twiddling his thumbs while the world is being introduced. But Simon himself, as a character, is well realised. Williams is good at crawling into the mind of a teenage boy, and we follow Simon for a couple of years as he begins to desire something more than running away from the housekeeper and starts looking for glory, even if he doesn’t know what that means.

And then, after that slow start, Williams throws Simon so deeply into chaos and on a path of misery that it’s rather shocking. For a while, Simon is a hunted animal and it is traumatic for him. The backbone of this novel is Simon’s character development from a clueless mooncalf to something more, and we can see him changing slowly, and this is very well done by Williams, with subtlety and a sense of psychological realism. Simon isn’t winning any prizes for pluckiest protagonist though, especially this early in the story. He’s dull and slow and there are multiple scenes where people tell him to run, run, go on, run! Simon, stop staring like an idiot and get moving! And then it takes another half a page to get him to move, only to have him trip. Stuff like that really grinds my gears.

Williams has a fun interpretation of elves. He called them Sithi – inspired by Celtic mythology – and presents them as a primal, alien people. Sadly, we hardly ever see them. He gives them Japanese sounding names which makes for an odd mix with the Irish thing. The elf queen for example is named Amerasu, clearly inspired by the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu. As you can see, Williams carries his influences on his sleeve. What I said about his writing having an obviousness to it carries over into the world-building. The map, for example, is almost a carbon copy of Tolkien’s and the vikings have a one-eyed god named Udun and named the third day of week after him. 

What all of this comes down to, is that while Williams’ writing is really quite good on a technical level, it is in service of a story that is slow, sometimes bloated and very much reliant on old tropes and references. Personally, that gave me some trouble in getting through it, but ultimately I enjoyed reading this and I think anyone with an eye for the technical side of sound writing can enjoy it, as long as you have some affinity with classic fantasy. What do I mean with sound writing? The character development is great, the characters and their dialogues and emotions feel real, the writing on a sentence level is pleasant with interesting descriptions and flowing sentences, and chapters are well constructed. Therein lies the difference for me with a book like The Eye of the World. Williams is doing something similar to Robert Jordan but on a far higher level of craft. And just to crap on Jordan a bit more (sorry), The Dragonbone Chair’s story isn’t following the blueprint of Tolkien or White so very closely. Occasionally you’ll find that parts of the plot feel similar to, say, The Fellowship of the Ring, but I would call Williams’ writing as “inspired by” or “in conversation with”, instead of reusing the skeleton of an earlier story.

While this book played an important role in the history of epic fantasy in the sense that it opened a lot of eyes to a new, fresh approach to old Tolkienian and Arthurian tropes, for modern readers I would suggest that they wait until they feel nostalgic for old, classic fantasy. At the time, Williams paved the way forward for epic fantasy to include more political drama and some subversion of tropes and so influenced writers such as George R.R. Martin, Robin Hobb and Patric Rothfuss to take that evolution to the next level, but The Dragonbone Chair is a far cry from the grimdark fantasy of the early 2000s and even farther from the action-packed, female-filled, multi-POV, ethnically diverse epic fantasy that started to appear in the 2020s. It played its role, and can be visited as one of the best examples of that older type. But nothing about the characters, story or worldbuilding raised a sense of wonder in me.

Well done, but I may not go on to read the rest of the series. My preferences have changed too much. Life’s too short.

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17 Responses to Tad Williams – The Dragonbone Chair (1988) Review

  1. Bookstooge says:

    Considering that Williams is writing a sequel trilogy, if this book left you feeling like that, it’s probably for the best to not spend any more time on it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmm. Yeah I think the first trilogy can probably stand on its own, because people have been reading it like that for 30 years, so first I have to decide whether I want to read Stone of Farewell and To Green Angel Tower.

      If these books had been 400 pages each, I would have continued without a doubt. But I am not such a fast reader. Stone of Farewell and Green Angel Tower would take me another 6 weeks to complete and that’s just not worth it to me. Especially since I wanted to start skimming and that’s not a nice feeling.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve often considered taking the plunge with this saga, but the sheer number of pages involved always stayed my hand, and now your “warning” about a story that is intriguing, but is also slow and bloated, has cooled any residual enthusiasm completely…
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • This one has a very bad case of slow and bloated. It is known for it. But that was not even the greatest problem for me, because the story and the world were also uninteresting. On the positive side, the writing was good. The descriptions and character development were good. But that’s not enough for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. piotrek says:

    I have very similar feelings towards this trilogy. A nice, not overly sophisticated story… I read it all, gave up after picking up his recent return to this world. I definitely enjoyed it more than WoT, a bit less than Feist, probably the most similar series. I have Williams’ War of Flowers on my shelf, maybe one day I’ll risk reading this 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I kind of wish that I had read this 20 years ago. But… I remember reading Feist’s Magician and I think I liked it but not so much that I continued with the rest of his series. When I was a young adult, writers like Feist, Williams, Jordan, Hobb and Goodkind were very popular. They all got translated into Dutch and appeared in local bookstores and libraries.

      Liked by 1 person

      • piotrek says:

        Yes, I’d also enjoy it more as a kid, but sometimes I need a return to this atmosphere 🙂 Hobb is still great and I want to go back to her series… but there are so many series to finish…
        Jordan and Goodking though… pure evil 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        • I might try the first Goodkind one day. Just for shits and giggles.

          Liked by 1 person

          • piotrek says:

            Goodkind is a rare case when I bought a book, and then sold it without reading… after I read some really stupid thing he said, I don’t remember what exactly… but I’ve seen the first season of the TV show so I have some idea what this is about, and yeah, perhaps for shits and giggles 😉


  4. Ola G says:

    I was fortunate enough to start with Williams’s short stories set in this universe. It was enough to turn me off his writing for life 😀 It wasn’t that bad, just insignificant, derivative, and unmemorable – and bloated. Yup, even his short stories were lengthy! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Even his short stories are like that? Wow. Thanks for the warning. I’ve heard really good things about his other series: Shadowmarch and Otherland. But then again, I also heard really good things about The Dragonbone Chair. I think it’s safe to assume that his writing is bloated in every one of his works.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ola G says:

        I just didn’t jive with his style. He sounds well-intentioned but pompous, and reminded my of Feist, though not on a good way. Like a teenage boy realizing his dream of writing books, but mentally still being in that space where everything is rather simplistic and in line with “Tolkien canon” but with added romance/ chaste sex 🤣 Like Sanderson a bit, as well, just without any original magic system 🤣

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oof that’s quite the character assassination Ola! 😂 were these stories very old? He has a white beard now.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Ola G says:

            Yeah, I feel kinda guilty for thrashing old men, I feel much better when thrashing middle-aged and especially young men 🤣 But yeah, I offered this assessment to a Williams fan and we’ve never spoken again… 😅

            One story was in one of the fat anthologies of the early 2000s I think… I’ve read another one somewhere else, but I think it was a similar period, definitely before 2015.

            Liked by 1 person

        • piotrek says:

          I agree and I kind appreciate that kind of story, when I’m in the right mood, but when I read the first part of his new trilogy, I realized he hasn’t grown a bit, and that’s sad

          Liked by 2 people

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