Empire of Grass by Tad Williams
Hodder and Staunton, HB, £20.00
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming
High King Simon and High Queen Miriamele are separated, trying to manage threats to their kingdom from different angles. Miriamele is in Nabban where a political marriage is causing a power struggle which could affect the high throne’s stability. Simon is in Hayholt where the pressures of ruling are compounded by the death of his daughter-in-law and the loss of his grandson. And on the edge of their awareness is the threat from the Norns, the ancient race whose war with humanity has lasted for generations, are preparing for a war to end all wars and to remove the human threat forever. But what neither Simon nor Miriamele can know is how close the Norn’s are to achieving their goals or what help they have received from inside Hayholt itself.
This book is the second in the Last King of Osten Ard and sixth in the whole series if you include the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, and for me it is not the strongest. It starts where The Witchwood Crown finished with Prince Morgan lost in the Aldeorte Forest unaware that his mother had been killed or the dangers that his grandparents and allies are facing. But despite the immediacy of the start, it takes a while to get moving. Morgan remains lost in the forest for about half the book, mostly on his own with whole chapters given over to reflection. Nor is he the only character caught in limbo. Queen Miriamele is told so often she’s in danger and needs to leave Nabban that it becomes repetitive. She never seems to connect with these warnings until too late which felt out of character for her. She was always politically more savvy than that.
Each chapter is broken down into a number of sections. The sections could be all one character’s point of view or many. One chapter jumped between at least three different characters with a new one being introduced for just over a page before he vanished again until very close to the end. This made for a disjointed reading and, when combined with the amount of travelling and social gatherings that didn’t appear to bring anything new to the story, I struggled to really lose myself in the book as I have with everything else Tad Williams has written.
That isn’t to say it’s a terrible book. It isn’t. The chapters about the Norns tear me apart. On the one hand, they are cold, detached creatures bent on the destruction of mankind, and on the other, they are immortal beings capable of creating great wonders, with the capacity for unfailing love, and quite justified in their hatred of these creatures that destroy everything they touch. For mankind, the world will be a better place without them and yet a much less magical place. The tragedy of what must come, either the destruction of mankind or the Norns, is poignant and haunting.
The parallels of Morgan in this series to Simon in the first are compelling. Morgan has enough self-awareness to see the comparison between him and his grandfather, but not enough to see how he has been manipulated from a young age, made an alcoholic manchild by those who were meant to protect him. I want to see him come through his manipulation and his painful growth in the wilderness into the man he is capable of becoming.
Most of the action comes at the end of the book when all the manoeuvring of characters has finished and that is satisfying. We have an idea of the scale of treachery toward King Simon and the danger from within his own caste. The Norns make very real and dangerous progress towards their goal and those who could help Simon prepared are scattered across the land, lost, held captive, or dying.
Although this isn’t the best from Williams in my opinion, it certainly won’t put me off reading the next book in the series. This is not a book to be read in isolation. Empire of Grass is essential reading for fans of the series and if you’re new, then start at The Dragon Bone Chair, the first book of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, and work towards it. You definitely cannot appreciate the brilliance of the series without it.