I recently got back into A Song of Ice and Fire, and when I reached the end of the fifth book and froze on the brink of winter as all of Martin’s fans have since 2011, I went in search of another book that would scratch my greyscale flare up. On my quest, I discovered a series I’d never heard of before, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams. So I dove into the first book, expecting a Martinesque plot of intrigue, thick with dynamic characters and poignant themes.

I was disappointed. While The Dragonbone Chair is credited as the prototype for modern fantasy, there are clear Tolkien elements–the worst elements. It is 672 pages long, but it feels like 5000. I’m reminded of the old adage, “Give a book one hundred pages before you put it down,” which I’m pretty sure Tad Williams misheard as, “Give a book one hundred pages before the plot can be found.” The book is essentially a documentary of a castle scullion’s day-to-day life until chapter twelve. There are long expository monologues of lore and bits of intrigue before that, but mostly nothing happens.

Writers, listen up. If everything exciting happens before the point of telling, YOU’RE WRITING THE WRONG STORY. My god, this book was infuriating. I have never had so much difficulty getting through a book, and I’ve read Dickens. When the conflict finally kicks off, the reader is fooled into thinking that the ascent towards the climax has begun. After the first spark of conflict, the character lost in a forest for what feels like 200 pages, being sad. I wanted to give Williams the benefit of the doubt. It seemed like he was attempting to do something fresh, showing the dark side of adventure. But the protagonist is just too unlikable to carry the story through these lulls. The book continues with this format.

The Dragonbone Chair is divided into brief moments of conflict separated by long periods of the protagonist wandering through a forest, listening to another character tell a story of what happened a thousand years ago, getting lost in a snowstorm, singing a song, etc, etc, etc, ET CETERA. Lore is a staple of fantasy, as integral to the genre as swords and dragons. But if your book is 90% lore, it isn’t lore anymore, just bad writing. It’s called exposition. It’s telling, not showing.

Let’s put it this way: if you’re going to watch a movie, would you rather watch the movie where a hero leads his people against the ancient enemy or the movie where characters talk about that hero three hundred years later? It could be said that this is exactly what Tolkien does. There is a principle difference: when Tolkien has expository periods, it (usually) serves a narrative function. It is foreshadowing or tension-building. He describes the dark history of a forest before the characters enter. The Fellowship is pinned down in a tomb, and they find a book detailing the harrowing events that occurred before they arrived, warning the reader of the peril the characters are facing. There is another thing that sets Tolkien apart from Williams: stakes.

The stakes in The Lord of the Rings are always present. The corruption of the ring is an ever-present threat for Frodo. Aragorn and company must catch up to the orc party before the hobbits are delivered to Saruman. It’s called a ticking clock, one of the most frequently used devices in fiction. In The Dragonbone Chair, there are virtually no stakes. Let’s compare similar stakes from the two books.

In LOTR, Frodo is stabbed by a Morgul blade on Weathertop, and it’s slowly turning him into a ghostly wraith similar to the Nazgul. The company must take him to Rivendell before he is lost to them forever. All the while, the Ringwraiths are still hunting them. The stakes are clear: the main character, the ringbearer, is in danger of a fate worse than death, and the ruin of all the world is on the line.

A comparable plot point happens in The Dragonbone Chair. A hunting party of men and hounds is pursuing two characters, Simon and Binabik. They hear someone in trouble and turn back to help despite the danger. They find two girls in a tree, and one of them is gravely injured. Simon actually knows one of them, Marya, but it is Marya’s sister who is injured. They must get her to a healer before she dies while they are being pursued. The crucial difference between these two examples is that this is our first time meeting this character, she has never spoken a line. She is so forgettable that I can’t even remember her name. Why would I care if she dies? Conversely, Frodo is the main character of LOTR, and the fate of the world is in the balance.

Williams uses the same tactic again hardly fifty pages later. This time, it is a character that we are well acquainted with, with a similar impact. We just saw the same thing happen with a character who never even had a line. Why would we expect one of the protagonists to die? This brings us to another point: the characters aren’t well-written.

Simon is the protagonist. His main characteristics are bravery, curiosity, petulance, and empathy. Unfortunately, he just isn’t interesting or likable. Simon’s origin gave Williams a prime opportunity to pull a Potter or a Snow. Think Harry Potter: When the reader is introduced to Harry, he is locked under the stairs, abused, and mistreated for no good reason. Jon Snow was raised in a similar environment. Catelyn Stark makes sure that he knows he’s a bastard and openly despises and demeans him.

Williams could have easily done something similar. We’re all familiar with the story of the mistreated feudal servant. Cinderella is the most well-known case of this in pop culture. It’s an easy way to get points for your character because everyone loves to root for the underdog. As it stands, Simon just isn’t a protagonist that the reader cares about. I’m not sure if this is what makes the book so bad, but it certainly deserves a portion of the blame.

All of that said, Williams’ word craft is stellar. Despite how much I hated this book, I respect the author’s ability to craft a sentence; every word, sentence, and paragraph feels carefully considered and intentional. Especially considering how long this book is. If you’re a writer, I absolutely recommend reading this book, for the prose alone. As an apt example considering the tone of this article, I’ll leave you with this,

“A piece of writing is a trap,” he said cheerily, “and the best kind. A book, you see, is the only kind of trap that keeps its captive—which is knowledge—alive forever.”

Tad Williams, The Dragonbone Chair.

Make sure you check out my accompanying article discussing all the parallels between this book and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, aka Game of Thrones.

But what do you think? Am I mischaracterizing this book? Is it better than I’m giving it credit for? Let me know in the comments below!