Review: Stop Dragon My Chair Around

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.

NaNoWriMo Day 16 (11/16)

I took yesterday off as planned. Got my extra sleep, got my errands run, took the time to make myself some delicious healthier food (hotdogs are super easy to make in a toaster oven and they taste alright if you buy the good ones, but they’re not exactly a good meal to eat four out of seven days a week), and then sat down to write around one in the afternoon. Twelve hours later, I’d written a few hundred words, play Destiny for a couple of hours, and finished reading the entirety of “To Green Angle Tower.”

I want to just say “whoops” and laugh it off, because that would be easy and I’m already stressed enough knowing I’ve got 15 days to write 39,000 words, but that would be a disservice to myself and the book I read. One day, once NaNoWriMo has ended and I’m trying to keep the daily updates to my blog going, I’ll write a full review of the book and then probably a reflection on it. Heck, I’ll probably do the entire “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn” series. There’s so much to unpack and talk about in the series!

Anyway, I honestly don’t regret taking the entire day off to finish reading this book. While I had planned to write and I do also wish I had spent more time writing, this reading break came when I really needed it. That last book I’d finished, aside from a couple of comics here and there, was John Green’s “Turtles All the Way Down” and that, being a highly emotional read for me, had been skewing my perspective. It had me very focused on the things my own story would say and how that it might be read by people. Finishing “To Green Angle Tower” was an excellent reminder that what a book says relies so heavily on the reader that the writer can only tell a story and see what comes out at the end if they want it to be any good. Every so often, I remember a famous book that I strongly dislike because it was written to make a point about something specific. It’s the literary equivalent of a guard standing outside a town in a Super Nintendo game: it has only one thing to say and will mindless repeat it every time you try to engage it.

I don’t want to write a story like that. While I wasn’t so far gone that I had already scripted the story’s message, I’d invested too much into what it was “supposed to” say that it was making it hard for me to write. Today’s writing is going to focus on stepping back from that ledge and getting back to figuring out the story I want to tell. I’ve already done a lot of productive thinking about it while I was staring at my ceiling, waiting for the roiling emotions stirred by the end of a beloved book to calm enough for me to sleep. I think I know what I’m doing, now. I can’t wait to get back to work!

 

Daily Prompt

Sometimes, the most important details can be the ones we don’t know. We see it often in fantasy novels, in stories using the “hero from humble origins” trope. A low-born young woman or man rises up to overthrow the cruel king or lord, stumbling from failure to success as they grow from a child into an adult. They learn wisdom, gain strength, and ultimately triumph, seeking no reward for their efforts but the chance to return to the peaceful life they once knew. Then, as the story wraps up, they learn of some hidden nobility or royal blood in their family tree and are called upon to take the place of the leader they overthrew. The clever part of this that we see in good stories is when the author hints at their background, foreshadowing the moment when they would rise to power. For today’s prompt, write about something similar for your character. Show a the moment that the learn the truth about their hidden past and come up with a few ways to hint about that you could insert into an earlier part of the story.

 

Sharing Inspiration

Today’s inspiration is “To Green Angle Tower” by Tad Williams and will be the source of a lot of future quotes and references. I cannot count the number of times I stopped reading, went back, and reread a passage because I enjoyed it so much. The characters, some of whom still felt remote and unknowable through the middle of the book, had become alive and real by the time I reached the appendix. If you want to read a good high fantasy book that is incredibly clever with its references and inspirations, I cannot recommend the “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn” trilogy emphatically enough. I suggest getting the recent reprints because I love tall books, even if they’re a bit harder to shelve. Not having to read a couple thousand pages of tiny text will be super helpful.

 

Helpful Tips

If you are feeling particularly stuck at a scene that just refuses to move along, there are a lot of ways you can make progress happen. The easiest would be to kill someone. Nothing progresses a story and gets characters moving like a nice injection of death. If you’re looking for something with a lower impact, have a character lose something. It can be a possession, a companion, a source of comfort, or even a limb. If you’re still trying to build things and not yet ready to start taking them away, introduce someone or something. Adding a new character or location can refresh the existing dynamic between your characters, giving them a nudge to start progressing toward their goals again. Adding things or removing them is easily the fastest way to get a story progressing again, so don’t be afraid to make liberal use of your power to move things on or off stage as you’re setting the scene.