Reading Tad Williams: “Empire of Grass”

Warning: Some spoilers for the novel follow.

It’s finally here!

That was my first thought upon hearing that the second installment of his new trilogy, entitled “The Last King of Osten Ard” was soon to be published. I’d loved The Witchwood Crown so much, and I’d become very impatient of the release of the continuation of the story. It takes a truly great author to take a well-established (and well-loved) fantasy world and do something new and exciting (and even, sometimes, devastating) with it, and I don’t think that anyone but Tad Williams could really pull it off. Luckily for us, there’s still a lot of the old magic in the splendid kingdoms of Osten Ard.

Empire of Grass finds our various characters scattered to the many corners in Osten Ard. Morgan struggles along in Aldheorte, Simon and Miriamele try to keep their fragmenting kingdom together, Tiamak discovers new and unsettling secrets about the monarchs’ deceased son, Unver solidifies his hold on the Thrithing, the Norns Viyeki and his daughter Nezeru, as well as his mortal mistress Tzoja, pursue Queen Utuk’ku’s dreams of destroying mortals, and the Hernystirmen Eolair, Aelin confront dark realities in both the north and the south of Osten Ard, the Sitha Tanahaya does her best to help the mortals, and the enigmatic Jarnulf sets out to kill the Norn queen herself.

As this brief (and very incomplete) summary suggests, Empire of Grass is truly kaleidoscopic, providing us multiple perspectives on the chaos that threatens Osten Ard (and perhaps existence itself). Furthermore, we also get a far more robust cast of characters than in “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.” For one thing, we get the perspectives of not one but two Norns, Viyeki (the High Magister of the Builders) and his half-Norn/half-mortal daughter Nezeru, and this allows us a glimpse into not only Norn society, but also how the Norns make sense of their world. As alien as they are, however, Williams does a great job making them seem at least a little relatable.

One of the things that I have always loved about Tad Williams is his sheer command of language. He’s one of the best actual writers out there, and I’ve always thought it’s a shame that he doesn’t get more recognition. His prose is almost poetic in its power to truly paint a scene, and his characters are as rich as and layered as his language. Though they may be frustrating at times, you can’t help but find yourself utterly bound up with their struggles to contend with the world around them.

Though this trilogy takes place in the same world as its predecessor, it definitely feels very different. There is a certain existential angst here, a sense that all of being itself is possibly under threat. Though it isn’t spelled out, I get the distinct impression that Utuk’ku will be quite satisfied in bringing about the destruction of reality itself if that means that it will rid the world of the mortals that she hates so deeply. The repeated references to Unbeing, the fell darkness that swept away the long-lost homeland of both the Sithi and the Norns, hints at a new dark age to come. One got a little of this existential dread, I think, in Williams’s last epic fantasy outing, “Shadowmarch,” but it’s a little jarring to see it in the context of this world. The thing is, though, is that it feels very tonally consonant with the world that we, outside the novels, are living in. As he did with “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn,” Williams is able to capture moments of genuine horror, as when Utuk’ku sets out to resurrect a long-dead relative in an effort to bring about the apocalypse. It’s unsettling, but it also feels very much in keeping with her past behaviour and motives.

This new series also raises the perplexing question of history. In most epic fantasy, once the end arrives we’re usually fairly certain that things will get better going forward from that endpoint. Certainly that was the case when we came to the end of To Green Angel Tower, with Simon and Miriamele safely enthroned and both the Storm King and his mortal puppet Pyrates fully vanquished. Now, however, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Whether it’s the fall of Naglimund to the nefarious Norns (again) or the relentless malice of their queen (who still seems determined to bring about the end of mortals, no matter how much damage it might cause to her own people), or even the possible existence of Pyrates’ shade haunting the Hayholt, history’s relentless drive toward chaos puts pressure on the concept of the fantasy happy ending. By the end of the book, we’ve had to see each of the characters, major and minor alike, put through the wringer as they’re forced to watch chaos loom. The fact that so much of this chaos has been fomented by bad actors with their own agenda just makes it that much more excruciating, both for the characters and for us.

And speaking of endings…whew, lads. The fact that Simon believes his beloved Miri is dead when she isn’t (or, at least, I don’t think so), fills this scene with such pathos that it is truly wrenching to read, all the more so because we have already been to love and care for these characters. It’s hard to say what Simon will do now that he thinks the love of his life is dead, but I daresay that it isn’t going to be good for the well-being of either his reign or for the kingdom at large.

All in all, I was very pleased with Empire of Grass. Tad Williams continues to be one of those authors you can rely on to tell you a story that is both heartbreaking and beautiful. And, best of all, you know that it’s going to be wrapped up in three (more likely four) volumes at the most. Given how long some of us have been waiting for a certain fantasy author to finish up his sprawling epic, that’s a breath of fresh air.

The real question now is: will Williams really be able to wrap up this sprawling story in just one more book? My guess, based on past experience, would be no. But you know what, if it means that I’ll get one more Osten Ard book, I’m totally fine with that. I just hope I don’t have to wait another two years!