I honestly can’t believe I didn’t hear of The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams until just last year. Well, I should say that I wasn’t really aware of it until last year. I’m pretty sure I’d heard mention of it before, I just didn’t really register it as something I should read, which is surprising. This book (and the subsequent two books in the trilogy) is actually quite famous in a lot of fantasy circles as it was one of the main inspirations for famous authors such as Patrick Rothfuss and George R.R. Martin, urging them to go ahead and write their own fantasy stories. A product of the late 70s and 80s, it followed on the tail of the Tolkien craze but took a firm step in a different direction.
While Tolkien’s works were an attempt to create a mythology for England, inspired by the Nordic cultures around England, The Dragonbone Chair is an adaption of the Arthurian tale mixed with a few popular and more-modern elements, such as politics, character development, and more swords. Everything is better with more swords, generally speaking. Armories, wars, training regimens, the list goes on and this book has them all!
The protagonist of the Dragonbone Chair is a simple kitchen scullion, Simon (or Seoman if you’re using his formal name) as he explores his castle home, rises to become the assistant to a doctor, and then is launched into the wider world by events beyond his control. Throughout it all, he acts exactly like the teenaged city boy he is. He loses track of time and has difficulties with his studies because he is too busy day-dreaming and trying to learn about great battles or magic. He struggles to survive in the wilderness as you’d expect, even though he has some basic survival skills. He is clumsy, but genuinely kind and manages to hold onto that quality as the story progresses and he encounters trouble after trouble.
Simon, and the other characters, are easily my favorite parts of this book. Simon is human, but so is everyone else in the story–even the non-humans. There is a wonderfully diverse cast–mostly in attitude as there are few female characters in this series (I’m pretty sure this book wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test). The main female character, Princess Mirimelle, is introduced later in the book, though she features rather heavily from there on. Mirimelle may make rash decisions just as Simon does, but she is much more deliberate in her choices. Her composure under pressure and in unfamiliar situations provides a calmer contrast to Simon’s more emotionally-driven actions.
All of the characters are wonderful, from the scholars to the soldiers, to the royalty. Every single one of them has their own motivations and goals, but the story does a wonderful job of weaving them all together despite that. Because most of the story is told from the perspective of a younger person, the first half has a pervasive sense that everyone but the protagonist knows exactly what they are doing. Thankfully, this illusion is swiftly dispelled as soon as you start to read chapters or sections from the perspective of other characters, not too far past the halfway point. All of them have their struggles, their failings, and their moments of doubt or weakness.
The biggest problem I had with the story was the pacing. There were a lot of wonderful characters to read about and a lot of very interesting information to take in, but it was actually difficult to sit down and read sometimes. Not because it wasn’t a fun or interesting story, but because there was just so much information imparted in the first third of the book. As short as the book is compared to the final volume in the trilogy, it felt like a much longer read because the pacing and information overload made me want to put it down after an hour so I could rest a bit.
There’s so much to discuss about the book that I’ve had to re-write this review four times to make sure I actually focused on reviewing it rather than geeking out over the mythology and how this story has influenced other stories that I love. I’d rather do that in person, over a beer or a cup of coffee, anyway. I suggest reading the book and then convincing other people you know to read it so you’ve got someone to discuss it with.