Darnell’s Garage: The Dragonbone Chair

“Darnell’s Garage” is a series in my blog where I take a deep dive into stories to see what makes them succeed or fail.

The Dragonbone Chair, the first in the Memory, Sorrow, and Time trilogy, by Tad Williams follows young, orphan boy Simon as he unwittingly finds himself caught up in the civil war threatening Oster Ard as well as the larger threat of the undead Storm King, a strange dark sorcerer exiled to the frozen north.

If this sounds a lot like A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin, then give yourself a cookie because GRRM was greatly inspired by Williams’ work. Maybe a little too inspired. Aside from the Storm King, there’s a large, preternaturally intelligent wolf, a high-born girl disguising herself as a boy, a prince loses his hand, and even a badass knight with a helmet shaped like a hound. There’s actually more examples, but I’ll stop there.

I really wanted to love The Dragonbone Chair. It has so much going for it, and it’s considered a modern classic by epic fantasy readers. But it just didn’t do it for me. The novel just undercuts itself at every turn. The pacing is stilted, the prose is turgid, and there are few memorable characters. By about the 80% mark I just started skimming towards the end.

Before I pop the hood and take a closer look, I’ll say that I’ve tried to keep this fairly spoiler free. But if you really want to read this book then it’s probably best to go in fresh.

If I were to pick one issue to fix in TBC it would be perspective. The story’s core is really Simon’s arc. Much like Jon Snow, Simon is a lowly orphan who dreams of glory. The story is mostly told through his POV, but occasionally shifts to other characters. The problem is that, unlike GRRM who uses a great variety of POVs fairly systematically (although there is room for criticism here), Williams does this haphazardly and without any kind of rhyme or reason. The result is jarring for the reader.

I see what Williams was trying to do here. He’s trying to give some background on the political milieu surrounding the larger plot that Simon finds himself in, but there’s two problems.

Firstly, it’s both too much and not enough. We get all this information on Oster Ard but it doesn’t feel very relevant to our protagonist. And because we don’t get that ensemble of POVs like GRRM uses, the world never feels fully fleshed out despite all the info dumps.

Secondly, the minor characters are very interchangeable. They all feel like a poor man’s Aragorn. One thing GRRM really nails with ASOIAF are the memorable minor characters. Brienne, Jaime, Hodor, Ramsay, Little Finger. All these minor characters are so distinct. The reader can easily differentiate between them. We know what they want, their flaws, their strengths, what they look like.

Williams really should have just kept the story limited to Simon’s perspective. Kinda like Harry Potter. Rowling did a great job showing how Harry fit into this larger conflict while keeping the focus on his arc, which was the series’ core.

After the issue with perspective, the next biggest problem is pacing, particularly with regards to Simon’s arc. I was never really sure what Simon wanted. He feels insecure because he’s an orphan working in the kitchen and getting bossed around. But whenever he’s given a chance to pursue these desires, he just mopes around and complains. He also has a few love interests, but again these are never really articulated. Mostly, he kinda just gets swept up with the story and does what the plot needs him to.

Contrast this to Jon Snow. We always know what Jon wants and he’s always trying to get what he wants. When we first meet him, he wants to go to the Wall so he can make something of himself. When he gets there, he wants to be the best. There’s always something pushing his character forward.

Yes, I understand that real people aren’t always like that. Many of us struggle to identify what we want and pursue our desires. But that doesn’t make for a compelling character, especially a protagonist. Still, there are ways to still represent that indecisiveness in a compelling way.

The key to a strong character is to create conflict between what they want and what they need. Again, let’s look at Jon Snow. He wants to become a ranger in the Night’s Watch. But what he needs is to accept the fact that he’s a bastard and be at peace with himself. Tyrion even explicitly spells this out for him. The whole stuff with the Night’s Watch is an extension of Jon’s insecurity. His arc is to kill the boy and let the man be born.

(As a quick aside, I’ll say this is where the series fails because after Jon finally becomes the man he’s supposed to be, his arc falls flat and becomes reactive, like Simon, but that’s a whole other can of worms.)

Because TBC’s protagonist is so wishy washy, the story feels like a dog chasing its own tail. There are several times in the novel where I felt like his character was finally going to take off but he just remains clueless and petulant.

What I liked most about TBC, aside from the lore, is how Williams created some interesting non-human characters. The Sithi are an interesting spin on elves. The Storm King, also named Ineluki, is a fallen Sithi. I found his backstory very strong. It’s clear that GRRM was really trying to do something similar with the White Walkers but struggled to give them as a good a backstory.

Binabik the troll and his wolf Qantaqa are the real standouts. His parts were always my favourite moments in the story. Imagine Syrio Forel riding a dire wolf. Alas, if only the rest of the book was so memorable.

cheers,

-b

~ by braddunne on April 30, 2021.

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