So, obviously, this is going to have some spoilers for Memory, Sorrow & Thorn, the story beginning just a few weeks after that series ends. If you haven’t read them, tread lightly, because they do have some good twists and you’ll want to read them before tackling Heart here.
I am actually going to be the weird guy here and say that I enjoyed this more than the original trilogy. That seems vaguely heretical coming from a fantasy fan, but I actually didn’t get into MS&T until I was in my late twenties, and at the behest of my wife. I knew that it was a good series but it was kind of relegated to the “oh god, I don’t have time to devote to a doorstopper fantasy series right now” pile and when I did have time I inevitably ended up with some new release in my lap.
I feel that Heart manages to capture my favorite aspects of the original series while jettisoning many of the parts I found arduous. Now, don’t get me wrong, I did like all four books of the original trilogy (god damnit Williams) but there were segments that you could cut out and not lose anything from the story. What I loved was the sense of depth and history that he managed to infuse the setting with, and speaking through unreliable narrators long before that became a standard trope and the basis for many grimdark series. The idea that ancient prophecies about fighting back dark lords might actually refer to genocidal human imperialists, and that they might not realize it until after they tried to fulfill those prophecies with themselves as the heroes, that’s really good stuff and you can see how it shaped the genre as a whole.
Heart takes the idea that even in a fantasy conflict there is more depth than first appears, and applies it here to an incredibly stereotypical conflict: big, burly viking warriors versus sadistic dark elves.
Except the vikings actually kind of did wipe out the elves’ fore-bearers without much provocation, and only a few members of the current leadership would consider offering mercy to even the women and children of their enemies. These are the kinds of vikings who will very literally ravish and pillage your town in the worst ways, but we are conditioned to consider them the heroes of the story through certain framing devices and juxtaposition with enemies who are far worse.
Except the aren’t.
There wasn’t very much story told from the perspective of the Norns, the darker half of the elven/fairy race in the original trilogy. Here a full half of the book explores their culture, their religion, the interplay between different state powers, and the vast web of personalities that inhabit their mountain strongholds. While they served as faceless mooks in the first books, you kind of retroactively feel awful for them here.
The story is told through three perspectives: the Rimmergard lord Isgrimnur is trying to deal with his bloodthirsty (and rightly so, in some ways) lieutenant and with an infuriatingly enigmatic Sithi emissary both at the same time, each pulling him in a different direction when it comes to approaching the siege of the Norn lands. There are a pair of mercenary warriors who find themselves very far from home and not sure how to deal with that. Finally there is Viyeki, a military engineer from the Norn homeland, serving at the behest of his elder and the leader of the engineer corps.
The meat of the story is in this last third. We kind of know what to expect of the Rimmersmen from their prominent role as shock troops in the original trilogy, but the Norn stuff is very new and incredibly interesting. Their immortality adds a certain tragedy to them; each of them has hundreds if not thousands of years under their belt, knowledge of the forgotten world lost forever in the swing of a sword or an axe. You get a glimpse at their magic practitioners, the engineers, and the military forces who consider themselves dead from the moment they pick up a blade. Each one wants a different thing out of the conflict, and is willing to sell out certain aspects of their timeless culture to bolster what they consider important. Underneath it all you come to understand that the Storm King is far from the scariest being in their wasteland home, and there’s a very good reason that they came willingly to his banner when faced with some horrifying alternatives.
I like antagonists who make me think, which is one of William’s strengths.
It’s short as well, which forces him to condense what I like instead of meandering off. There’s a certain number of set pieces here, only a couple dozen named characters, and the immediacy brings a certain vividness and urgency to the narrative. While MS&T was all about sweeping fantasy, exploring the corners of the world and forging alliances with far-flung kindred in the face of obliteration, this is about a very bad siege. For the people involved in it, the expansive world outside no longer exists, and their entire lives revolve around sapper tunnels, food, and how and when they want to die. Beyond the races, the only link to the first trilogy is that both stories deal heavily with the idea that history is not as it seems, that as a set of lies agreed upon by scholars it is subject to change and rewrite depending on who happens to be holding the biggest pen at the time.
It left me looking even more forward to the second trilogy, which this serves as a bridging novel to, The Last King of Osten Ard. I’d love to explore the depths of the Norn mountain stronghold even more fully than we got here, and I especially love the hints he’s continuing to drop about the origin of the Garden from which all the elven peoples originally sprung.
I also kind of wish more books were like this. At his best I consider Williams the master of blending elements of grimdark with epic fantasy. It isn’t a curse-laden swear-and-rapefest like grimmer offerings, but it has enough unexpected deaths, a mature approach to medieval politics and too bloody-minded a take on combat to fit comfortably among the true heroic fantasy out there. And that’s to it’s benefit, because whitewashed heroic fantasy gets very old, very fast, and I’d much rather have the best of it mixed in with deeper questions about colonization, revisionist history, culture clashes and misunderstood prophecies.