Now that it is almost October it’s impossible for me to keep those famous, ominous words, first uttered in book one of George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, out of my mind: ‘Winter is coming’. The landscape of A Game of Thrones is irresistibly marked by the clash between winter and summer, warmth and cold, ice and fire. The freezing lands beyond The Wall contrast sharply with the sun-kissed southern lands of Westeros, which end ultimately in the desert principality of Dorne. This climatic imagery reaches its critical point when the imprisoned Davos Seaworth is informed by the red priestess Melisandre of Asshai that their entire world and all its people is no more than the mortal battleground between two gods whose conflict is everywhere and everlasting. On one side is R’hllor, the Lord of Light, the Heart of Fire, the God of Flame and Shadow. Against him stands the Great Other whose name may not be spoken, the Lord of Darkness, the Soul of Ice, the God of Night and Terror. They are opposites who present all men with a choice between light and dark, good and evil, death and life. But by no means is this a concept that is new to fantasy novels. Again and again, the cold lands of the north and the winter season are associated with death and darkness, while it is in the warmer southern lands and summertime that life and joy abide. In Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, Sturmspeik in the northernmost part of the world of Osten Ard is the forbidding fortress of the undead Storm King and his minions; the bleak wasteland known as The Blight is the domain of the Dark One, Robert Jordan’s principal villain in The Wheel of Time; and the witch-realm of Angmar in the north of Middle Earth is home to Tolkien’s Witch King, chieftain of the Ringwraiths who serve the Dark Lord Sauron. What is it that has lodged such dread of the perils of snow and ice in the minds of generations of storytellers?
Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn has been called ‘the fantasy equivalent of War and Peace‘ and it is easy to see why. Epic in every sense of the word, this series clocks in at around 4,000 pages in paperback (the final volume To Green Angel Tower had to be cut in two because it was too big to be published as a single paperback). Despite its length, the series never feels padded or plodding – instead it is one of those rare stories that totally engages you to the extent that you feel that you are ever bit as much a part of Williams’ world of Osten Ard as the characters. I recently re-read the whole of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn and what struck me for the first time was how much of a debt the fantasy authors that came after Williams owe to his work. George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series has won plaudits from every corner but I have to say that in my view the foundations and first floor of his series were laid by Williams (Martin himself has indicated that he was heavily inspired by Memory, Sorrow and Thorn). Although much of Williams’ writing itself owes a debt, inevitably, to J R R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, it is in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, perhaps for the first time, that we truly see an adult take on the genre of epic fantasy. Expectations are turned over, beloved characters suffer (and die, over and over again) and the fantasy world that is presented is every bit as gritty, believable and sometimes unpleasant as our own. Echoes of Williams’ work can also be seen in the books of those other giants of the fantasy genre, Robin Hobb, Terry Goodkind and Robert Jordan, as well as those of Martin.