Disclosure: I obtained my copy of this book from my local public library. I do not know the author nor have I ever had any communication with him about this book or any other matter. I am an author.
(Trigger warning: Some animal cruelty.)
My house is cold this morning, cold enough that I had to turn on the heat for a while. After making a couple of early trips to the studio -- 30 strides from my back door and 30 strides back -- I was so chilled I went right back to bed just to get warm again. I used the time wisely: I finished the last 100 pages of The Dragonbone Chair.
As mentioned in previous status updates, I first read this series well more than two decades ago. A few details remained in my memory along with the basic plotline, but 98% was as new as if I had never read it.
Had there been a decimal rating, I might have gone with 4.75 stars, but I backed it off to 4 1/2 because it wasn't quite up to the full five, for a couple of reasons. And I'm going to hit those reasons first.
The saga is set in a medievalish earth-like world, with castles and kingdoms and kings and princesses. . . . and a medievalish church that too much resembles medieval christianity. The monks and priests and bishops, churches and cathedrals, saints and relics, rites and writings are creepy and weak. Pagans give lip service to "God" and "His son" the holy Usires Aedon (aka Jesus) who was martyred by hanging upside down on the "Execution Tree." Instead of the sign of the cross, believers make "the sign of the Tree." The whole Aedonite religion seemed forced and almost silly, right down to holidays called "mansas" like Christian "-mas" and the wearing of jeweled or golden or wooden "tree" symbols around the neck like a crucifix. Williams offers no opinion of christianity in his creation, whether for good or ill, so it seems kind of pointless and lazy.
Other than that, the world-building is fine and relatively consistent in terms of the various kingdoms and rivalries and languages. Some of the human groups/ethnicities are vaguely teutonic, some are vaguely celtic, some a little more original; none, however, seem to reflect Asian or African or other non-European groups. The only exception is the "Black Rimmersmen," who seem to be bad guys, but they haven't played enough of a role in this first volume to determine what the designation really means.
The non-human races are kind of stock, though the use of the troll Binabik as one of the good guys is a nice change. The Sithi and Norns are vaguely elvish on the Tolkien model; the giant Hunen are rather like hairy Middle-Earthling cave trolls.
The cast of characters is huge, and this makes keeping them straight a bit difficult, even with the full listing at the end of the book. Where Tolkien introduced the various groups more or less one at a time as the Fellowship passed through their lands, Williams brings all of his onto the stage at once. The ensuing war encompasses virtually all of the vast uber-kingdom of Osten Ard, so the action shifts between the Erkynlanders in Erchester, the Hernystirimen, the Nabbanai in Nabban, the Rimmersmen from Rimmergard, and so on. As some of the main supporting characters change allegiance, the whole thing becomes a bit confusing, and I suspect that will continue through the succeeding volumes.
The main character, Simon, is your typical young male who has greatness thrust upon him. Orphaned at birth, he's been raised by the chambermaids in the great castle of the Hayholt in Erchester. Still in his teens, he gets swept up in the mighty and magical machinations of the High King Elias, whose quest for power is only thwarted by his brother Prince Josua . . . and mysterious bits of mythical lore.
By the end of The Dragonbone Chair, we've got lots of guys, one evil woman super villain, one possibly evil woman, and one princess who keeps disappearing. Women aren't well represented. This might not have bothered me nearly as much 25 years ago as it does now.
Okay, those are the negatives, the things that brought the rating down. The positives were that the writing is delicious, and there's lots of it! (There are also a surprising number of typesetting errors, but I've found that to be a frequent problem with paperbacks from the 1980s, and I don't know why.)
If you're a lover of the long, long, long epic fantasy, this is a pretty good example, with better world-building and stronger characterizations than others. Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series had more and maybe better female characters, but I lost interest in that after about seven volumes. I haven't tried the Game of Thrones books yet, though I have them.
I've only read the first few pages of the next book, Stone of Farewell, and I remember far less about it than I did about The Dragonbone Chair, so we'll see how it goes. I think it's even longer.