Monday, January 23, 2017

Review: The Heart of What Was Lost by Tad Williams

Tad Williams returns to the world of Osten Ard after 20+ years in The Heart of What Was Lost. In part, this short novel serves as a reintroduction of Osten Ard in advance of the forthcoming trilogy: The Last King of Osten Ard. But more than a simple reintroduction, I found The Heart of What Was Lost to be a very meta coda to the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series – a response coming 20 years later, in part admitting the shortcomings of the previous series and state of epic fantasy fiction of the times, a message of leadership and the future for today, and what I suspect is a tease of changes to come in The Last King of Osten Ard.

The Heart of What Was Lost is set in the aftermath of the events that end the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series, and feature dueling perspectives of a human army pursuing the remnant forces of the Norns with intent to eradicate them and that of the Norns themselves. One of the strongest aspects of the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series was its portrayal of the horrors of war, rather than the traditional glorification often seen in fantasy (or at least fantasy of the 1980s and 1990s). This is the core of The Heart of What Was Lost as the army of the Northmen seeks genocide in vengeance to the horrors the Norns brought upon people and the world. This is balanced by the perspective of the Norns fleeing, only thinking of the survival of their race and doing everything they can to achieve that survival.

The Heart of What Was Lost is the story of two leaders of their people, how they fight to survive, and ultimately, the sacrifices they will make. One leader serves as the heart of their people, the other people have lost their heart and are seemingly directionless in their efforts to survive. Both are forced to look at the traditions of the past and confront what the future can be. Are the traditions and actions of the past going to bring about a future they can be proud of?

While it’s not the focus, the weight and responsibility of leadership is on full display. True leadership is not an act of the selfishness, but one of sacrifice. Leadership is about the people and the future, it doesn’t relish in the past, and it makes the hard choice. In The Heart of What Was Lost, the balance of life, death and survival brings focus and immediacy to it all. Can the leaders do what is needed?

A third perspective is brought in, not only as a balance, but to give those of us who aren’t leaders something we can directly relate to. An everyman, a plain soldier far from home. This third point of view isn’t a portrayal of grand sacrifice or such, but this is basic survival. In the survival rivalries of the past and home are discarded as unimportant, basic friendship is the mean to survival, and continuing when death arrives. Of course there’s plenty of ‘war sucks’ to all this, but the way things end is tear-jerking tragedy. The journeys of The Heart of What Was Lost feel like interwoven Greek Tragedies, but none more than that of our every soldier. And the tragic end, is also the challenge that Williams sets for us all. For the sacrifice of leadership is not enough. The every person must step as well, and it isn’t easy. For the sake of the future, you may be asked to cut off the head of the reanimated corpse of your only friend. Over dramatic? When I look at the world around me today, I think not (but I sure wish it was).

For all of the powerful ideas on display in The Heart of What Was, I must admit that it took me time to really get into the book, even though it’s a relatively short novel. I think that this is in part due to it being over 10 years since I read the books in the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy, so while I don’t think it’s needed to be familiar with those books, a lack of familiarity may make it a bit more difficult to connect with the story initially. Though I also believe that bleak, dark, horrors of war basis was also a barrier for me as it’s just not the sort of story I gravitate toward right now. However, as indicated by my thoughts above, perseverance is rewarded.

At the top I mentioned some of the meta feeling I got from The Heart of What Was Lost. Yes, much of this is routed in a message of fighting for the future that resonates with me right now. But it’s more – let’s be honest, some of the world and society in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn feels dated in the context of the epic fantasy being written today. So, how does one deal with that dated feeling that is so obvious in a sequel? Most obvious is that The Heart of What Was Lost is man’s story – men are everywhere, with only a couple of token women. It’s striking and it was one of the barriers to me getting into the story. But in the end, Williams acknowledges this shortcoming, and further mocks the concept of ‘women and children’ not standing up for themselves. My hope is that this is his way of clearing the page for changes to come in the forthcoming trilogy.

In short, after a slow start, I very much enjoyed The Heart of What Was Lost. In spite of a few shortcomings, it resonates deeply with what I see in the world around me. It encourages and shows of view of hope, hope that we’ll need to fight for.

Books/Series of Osten Ard:

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn (my review of the trilogy*)

The Dragonbone Chair (my review*, Amazon)          
Stone of Farewell (my review*, Amazon)
To Green Angel Tower Part 1 (my review*, Amazon)
To Green Angel Tower Part 2 (my review*, Amazon)

The Heart of What Was Lost (Amazon)

The Last King of Osten Ard (Forthcoming Trilogy)

The Witchwood Crown (Amazon, coming June 2017)
Empire of Grass (forthcoming)
The Navigator’s Children (forthcoming)

*These reviews were written near the beginning of this blogging adventure, and I like to believe that I’ve gotten a lot better through the years. So, enjoy these ‘early years’ reviews.

An Aside for Some Personal Indulgence

Feel free to ignore the following as it’s more about me than The Heart of What Was Lost….

The Heart of What Was Lost brought about another reaction in me that I feel like writing about, even though I suspect it matters to very few. It brought back a passion for reviewing. It’s no secret that I review far less these days than I once did, and the vast majority of the few reviews I do put up are ‘Mini-Reviews’ that say little more than ‘I liked this book, you should read it’. It’s rare for me to really dive in, fully review a book, and explore my response to it.

Reality is that this is likely more of a one-off than a trend. Life keeps landing punch after punch these days, meaning I don’t have the time or emotional capacity for much deep reviewing. And the backlog of reviews I still plan to write shows that even the short, basic reviews will come at a rather slow pace. But, it was nice to be reminded that I do have ideas that I want to share, that I feel I can add to the conversation about a book beyond ‘read it, it was good’. And that is another reason why I really enjoyed The Heart of What Was Lost.

I could go on about ‘The Heart of What Was Lost in Reviewing’, but that level of wankery really isn’t necessary J

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