The Guardian newspaper has a somewhat effusive interview with the American fantasy writer Tad Williams, author of the popular Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series and its most recent sequel, Heart of What Was Lost. Putting aside the use of an irritating Oxford comma in the title of the original quartet of books, or the awkward name of the last, Williams is apparently well regarded by the Game of Thrones’ creator George RR Martin, who cites the Californian as a major influence. Personally I found his initial entry into the world of “high fantasy”, 1988’s The Dragonbone Chair, a fairly unremarkable story. While the article may claim that Williams’ books challenged the Tolkien-lite publications which dominated the genre market in the 1980s and ’90s, his fictional world of Osten Ard was not too dissimilar from that of Middle-earth (albeit with some heavy inspiration from Medieval European history). The background character of John the Presbyter was one of the few things in that edition which piqued my interest. Unfortunately my assumption that the author would eventually link him to the legendary Prester John and his lost Eurasian kingdom, giving a pseudo-factual feel to the saga, never came to pass. After plodding through the first entry in the series I gave up halfway through the second and can barely remember anything more about it now.
On the other hand, Tad Williams’ subsequent science-fantasy saga, Otherland, was much more interesting, with improved writing and characterisation, and earned some well-deserved praise in the late 1990s (though as with the first series, a good editor was needed to prune all the excess verbiage). I’ve read none of his other writings, and recent reviews of his works have been mixed. However what stood out for me in the Guardian article was the passionate – not to say, vitriolic – comments under the online piece from fans of various genre authors, attacking the negative opinions expressed in the feature and each other. Who knew that there were so many admirers of Stephen R. Donaldson’s excruciatingly boring Chronicles of Thomas Covenant or David Eddings’ utterly insipid Belgariad series? (Of course, parts of the latter saga were reworked by Christopher Paolini in his pilfering 2003 debut, Eragon. At least Terry Brooks had the sense to steal directly from the Lord of the Rings and not some Tolkienesque pastiche.)
Admittedly, many of my favourite “high fantasy” books from the 1980s and ’90s rarely feature in the top ten lists of the genre. These include Michael Scott Rohan’s quasi-prehistoric trilogy, The Winter of the World, and Mike Jefferies’ Loremasters of Elundium, a young adult sequence. Both are notably dark in tone, Rohan’s writing displaying a cold streak of fatalism while Jefferies’ stories contain some wonderfully creepy characters and scenes. Though the pair were at the start of their literary careers, and it shows in the writing, their tales easily outshone many of the regurgitated hero-quests then in vogue. As far as I know these books are now out of print, which indicates the fickle nature of publishing. Sometimes it is the crap which floats to the top while the gold sinks to the bottom.
Anyway, have a read of the Guardian interview and associated comments for yourself.