Review: The Heart of What Was Lost by Tad Williams

I wonder if all of history was as muddled as this? The chroniclers of future years, if there are any, will only be able to guess at what a mass of contradictions we were, who lived in such times.

It’s been 23 years since Tad Williams released—and 13 years since I’ve read—his epic, genre-defining Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series. It’s been well publicized that it was a major influence on George R. R. Martin, and it stands alone as my favourite work of fiction. After more than two decades of poking and prodding by his fans–“What’s the deal with the prophecy surrounding the twin children?!—Williams finally decided to return to the world of Osten Ard. But not in the way anyone would have expected.

Before the sequel trilogy debuts in June—the ominously titled The Last King of Osten Ard—Williams released (on January 1st) The Heart of What Was Lost, an almost-novella that comes in at just over 200 pages. For a writer whose hallmark is 800 page behemoths (the final volume of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn was split into two volumes in paperback due to its massive size), this is a stark, energizing departure.

The Heart of What Was Lost picks up just a few short months after MS&T ended. The battle for the fate of the world has been fought, and won, and a contingent of the human victors have marshalled their forces and given chase to what’s left of the evil, elvish-like Norns as they retreat back towards Nakkiga, their fortress in the frozen north.

One of MS&T’s central, and most enduring, characters—Duke Isgrimnur—is back. It is he, along with his Rimmersgard brethren and a smattering of soldiers from elsewhere in the kingdom, who has been given the task of ferreting out the last of the Norns. Two of those soldiers, Porto and Endri, provide a nice bromance counterpoint to the two high-ranking Norns we also follow throughout The Heart of What Was Lost, Viyeki and Yaarike. (Yaarike, in particular, is tremendous.)

After more than 3000 pages of Osten Ard stories, we finally get a prolonged look behind the Norn curtain. It is more heartbreaking than you would expect. Struggling for the very survival of their race, the Norns are treated with a wonderful amount of complexity and understanding from Williams. With the obviously evil Storm King defeated and their Queen in a lengthy slumber of renewal, a power vacuum has been created, and there are some, however minor their voices may be, who aren’t as hell bent on the humans’ destruction.

The uncertainty of those days also spawned many tales and rumors that are still told, and which make the work of a humble chronicler much more difficult. In such times, truth is always elusive. Some might even say that when the lady sleeps there are suddenly many truths, precisely because it is our great queen herself in her wisdom, power, and ubiquity who determines the order of all things. In her absence, facts are no longer trustworthy. In her absence, authority is diffused or even lost entirely. How can we know what is real?

Not the glorified epilogue some may have expected, The Heart of What Was Lost is, if not crucial to the story to come in The Last King of Osten Ard, a crucial part of understanding fully what’s at stake and what it all means. This is no longer the story of King Simon and his side. This is the story of all Osten Ard. Fittingly, The Heart of What Was Lost‘s cover features the subtitle, “A Novel of Osten Ard.”

MS&T was a sprawling fantasy opus—complete with prophecies, dragons, mysterious races, little people with big roles, and a scullion-turned-saviour—but its unbelievable quality (seriously, read the series, it is beyond fantastic) kept it from feeling formulaic. Osten Ard feels absolutely familiar, but somehow stands completely on its own. The Heart of What Was Lost continues in this tradition.

We’re treated to military outposts in the frozen wastes, northern strongholds under perilous mountains, confounding magic, undead horrors, and twists of fate, and yet this novel has an air of freshness. Perhaps it is its brevity, but there’s a heavy dose of Williams’ pixie dust all over this thing. From start to finish it is terrific.

We are a fierce race, we men. We will give up even our short, precious lives for revenge—no, for justice. No wonder the immortals fear us.

More than anything else Williams has written, this novel concerns itself with the consequences of war: what it does to the individuals involved, the countries in which they live, and the children who will grow up in the wake of the chaos. The Heart of What Was Lost humbles a great many people, some of whom we know, some of whom we think we know. It will be great to see how this carries forward into the long-awaited sequel trilogy, which starts with The Witchwood Crown, in June.

Fans of Osten Ard, feel relieved. Williams is back and he is near his best here. I jokingly referred to The Heart of What Was Lost as a great piece of DLC, but it truly is, as NPR called it, “a little gem unto itself.”

It’s been a long wait, but Osten Ard is back.

Thank you, Tad. It’s great to be home.

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