It's been 23 years since Tad Williams wrapped up his staggering fantasy saga, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. Originally planned as a trilogy, it eventually grew to comprise four huge novels and — by Williams' own count — a total of a million words. Shockingly, it became a bestseller, and along with Robert Jordan's vast Wheel of Time series, Williams' books helped pave the way in the '90s for George R. R. Martin's equally ambitious fantasy opus, A Song of Ice and Fire.
At last, Williams has returned to Osten Ard, the quasi-Medieval realm in which Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is set. His new novel, The Heart of What Was Lost, picks up almost precisely where the final chapter (but not the epilogue) of its predecessor, To Green Angel Tower, left off. Nearly a quarter of a century has passed in our world since that book was published, but back in the roughly Tolkien-esque domain of Osten Ard, only a few weeks have transpired. A battle for the fate of creation has been fought; in the aftermath, remnants of two warring armies marshal their forces in the frozen North.
Two of the best characters from Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn — Isgrimnur, the noble Duke of Rimmergard, and his stalwart lieutenant, Sludig — are at the center of the story, but Williams introduces a pair of new, compelling main characters: Porto, a soldier and family man from the South who's taken a younger fighter named Endri under his wing, and Viyeki, a military engineer for the Norns, the race that Isgrimnur and Porto fought in To Green Angel Tower. Struggling for survival amid atrocities and a downward spiral of revenge, each side is portrayed with sympathy and complexity, even as an ancient relic called The Heart of What Was Lost throws a perilous new variable into the age-old conflict.
Without giving too much away to those who haven't had the pleasure of steeping themselves in Williams' work, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn took many of the tropes so common to fantasy — up to and including prophecies, legendary swords, elf- and dwarf-like races of beings, and an orphaned young kitchen servant named Simon Mooncalf who is destined for much grander things — and simply did them better than almost anyone. Nothing was reinvented or deconstructed. Instead, Williams lovingly crafted a traditional fantasy epic that sprawled and soared. Wisely, The Heart of What Was Lost aims to do the same.
It largely succeeds. Balancing warmth with grimness, and gentle bits of humor with violence and vengeance, Williams has tapped back into the dynamic that made Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn so absorbing — despite its lack of originality. It also helps that, for once, he's written an Osten Ard novel that's short. Heart's brevity quickens the pace and condenses Williams' wordier tendencies, making for a brisk, bracing war story packed with political intrigue, haunting magic, and heartstring-yanking buddy moments.
If you're new to Osten Ard, though, how well does Heart work? Memory's rich, intricate backdrop of geography and history is part of the fun, after all, and in the new book, Williams doles out his detail much more efficiently. It's easy to follow Heart's plot and characters, but knowing the broader context makes them far more resonant; in that regard, the novel works better as a vignette than an introduction to the series.
It's also a bridge: In June, Williams will launch a new trilogy titled Last King of Osten Ard with its first installment, The Witchwood Crown. Heart not only ties up a couple of loose ends from Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, it sets the stage for a fresh epic to follow. That Williams has turned this functional little tome into a gem unto itself not only speaks to his enduring talent as a spinner of fantasy, but to the durability of Osten Ard itself — an awesome, immersive realm well worth revisiting all these years later.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.