Review: Empire of Grass

Title: Empire of Grass (2019)
Author: Tad Williams
Pages: 867
Series: The Last King of Osten Ard #2 (Series Tracker)


Another satisfying read as the overarching story starts to take shape (all is not well in Osten Ard!). So much of my enjoyment of this ongoing series comes from Williams’s writing. It’s beautiful to read and although the pacing is often slow, there’s rarely much fluff from page to page. 

In truth, the reason I started Williams’s original series was because I saw Michael Whelan’s incredible cover art for this novel and it made me want to read the entire series so I could put this book on my shelf. Seven books later and I’ve finally finished that book that caught my eye so many moons ago. Sadly, DAW chose not to commission more cover art from Whelan for future books in the series. Luckily, I’m now invested in the story itself, so the cover art is less important! (Although, I do like the art from book #3 – Into the Narrowdark).

★★★¾

Review: The Witchwood Crown

Title: The Witchwood Crown (2017)
Author: Tad Williams
Pages: 990
Series: The Last King of Osten Ard #1 (Series Tracker)


It was so wonderful to be back in Osten Ard and to see what has changed and, interestingly, what has remained the same. The Heart of What Was Lost and Brothers of the Wind turned out to be great primer novellas to the start of this new series.

I felt a certain Star Wars: The Force Awakens vibe from this book – similar story beats as the original Osten Are trilogy, a familiar foe, characters we know and love, and a new group of dynamic, young upstarts. 

I was pleased to see Williams’s writing style has become somewhat less opaque than in the decades old original trilogy. And while this book does not work at all as a standalone (nor does it try to), I have full trust that Williams will neatly tie everything together when all is said and done. I am fully on board for the ride.

★★★★

Review: The Heart of What Was Lost

Title: The Heart of What Was Lost (2017)
Author: Tad Williams
Pages: 251
Series: Osten Ard Saga (Series Tracker)


I can’t say that I was too interested in what happened to the Norns in the aftermath of Tad Williams’ original Osten Ard trilogy, but this was a nice, quick read that added greater depth and understanding to the plight of the Norns.

It wasn’t the epilogue to Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn that I was expecting (or wanting), but it was a well-written tale that keeps me excited for what’s to come in this world.

★★★

Review: Brothers of the Wind

Title: Brothers of the Wind (2021)
Author: Tad Williams
Pages: 258
Series: Osten Ard Saga (Series Tracker)


This will be more rewarding for those with preexisting knowledge of Osten Ard, but I think this works really well as a standalone story, too. For me, this is one of my favorite books of the year.

While Williams fills in some of Ineluki’s backstory (prior to his descent into supervillainy), there’s more emphasis on Ineluki’s brother, Hakatri, and Hakatri’s faithful servant, Pamon Kes. This duo’s story is incredibly compelling, with Pamon Kes as the standout star. I’d happily read more stories from Pamon’s perspective and I hope Williams tells additional tales from this era in Osten Ard’s history.

All in all, this was a wonderful novella that I struggled to put down. Bonus points for an outstanding cover and a stunning map!

★★★★¼

My thanks to DAW and NetGalley for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review: To Green Angel Tower

Title: To Green Angel Tower (1994)
Author: Tad Williams
Pages: 1,592
Series: Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn #3, Osten Ard Saga #3 (Series Tracker)


What an excellent series capper. I’m glad I pushed through the so-so second book and wasn’t deterred by the size of this massive, massive tome. Williams puts on a masterclass in building towards a grand finale here and while brevity and succinctness are nowhere to be found, Williams employs his 520,000 word count to set a captivating tone and mood for this concluding novel. I listened to some of this via audiobook as a change of pace and Andrew Wincott’s incredible narration added another layer of gravitas to the story and characters. 

I’m very pleased to know that Williams has continued telling stories in this world and I look forward to diving into those books soon.

★★★★½

Review: Stone of Farewell

Title: Stone of Farewell (1990)
Author: Tad Williams
Pages: 771
Series: Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn #2, Osten Ard Saga #2 (Series Tracker)


This was a bit of a letdown after a really enjoyable opening novel. Folks knock the first book because the first 200 pages are interminably slow. No one ever mentioned that the second book takes about 500(!) pages to really get going.

While The Dragonbone Chair raised many questions and provided few answers, Stone of Farewell raises very few questions and answers even fewer. Here’s hoping the final doorstopper in the trilogy is packed to the brim with with action and plot development!

★★★

Interview: E. J. Beaton, author of The Councillor

The Speculative Shelf is thrilled to welcome E. J. Beaton to the blog today to discuss her outstanding debut novel, The Councillor (out March 2, 2021) from DAW Books.

The book follows Lysande, a scholar plucked out of an academy at a young age to work for the Iron Queen of Elira. When the queen is killed by an unknown assassin, Lysande is thrust into a leadership role in the kingdom, with little support and only her wits to guide her. You can find our review of the book here.

DAW Books is hosting a giveaway for 3 copies of The Councillor (Age: 18+, US residents only) – you can enter here.


1. The Councillor is labeled “Machiavellian fantasy” — How would you describe this subgenre as it applies to your novel?

The Councillor has a bit of a dialogue with Machiavellian thought. Lysande confronts the consequences of persecution and class inequality, and considers who has historically paid the price for leaders’ choices – as a less privileged person, she’s aware of the allure of power yet also critical of it.

Machiavelli famously described the practical moves that a leader can make to establish their power. His best-known treatise, The Prince, explains how a feudal leader can rule effectively. But he was living in a divided Italy during a time of widespread chaos and pillaging, and he was calling on a leader to unite and stabilise the country. He had one eye on the realities of politics, yet simultaneously, he hoped for a better world.

That’s how I’d describe the main character in The Councillor, too. Lysande has a realistic understanding of power, and she’s studied political history. Yet she also sees the need for structural change and hopes that society can change for the better. The question that remains is whether she’ll be committed to achieving that justice herself, or whether the allure of power will be too strong for her to resist.

2. The Councillor features multiple unique cultures that feel lived-in and well-developed. Were any of these modeled after real historical world cultures?

Thank you for the kind comment! Multiculturalism was an essential part of the world-building in the novel. None of the cultures directly adapt real-world cultures or are intended as a faithful representation of any country, but some of the places I’ve visited inspired a few creations.

The city of Rhime is partly inspired by the places in Italy I’ve visited, including Rome, the Vatican, Cinque Terre, Florence, and the Tuscan countryside. The decoration of ceilings with elaborate sculptures and trompe-d’oeuil paintings in the novel, for example, are based on some of the Italian churches and buildings I walked through. The land that Lysande travels through in Rhimese territory is inspired by my travels in Tuscany, including the special quality of the light and the vibrant colours of the environment.

The use of city-states was partly inspired by my reading about Renaissance Italy – I was intrigued by the concept of a range of different rulers co-existing, sometimes chaotically, within the one country. On the other hand, aspects of Axium are inspired by English history, and Axium’s values are linked to the values taught historically in the English-based curriculum. Lysande comes to question those values over the course of the novel.

I’ve travelled a fair bit in Asia and Europe and have worked in Cambodia, so there are bits of things that I’ve observed from a range of countries and shaped into my own creations, but less concentrated in one city. It’s probably more of a subtle tribute. Being Australian, I had my own country’s varied nature to consider, too: I tried to create a multi-climate land where you could find desert, jungle, temperate land and snow-capped mountains all within the same country.

3. Lysande, your main character, becomes addicted to ingesting a powdered dragon scale, of sorts. Drug addiction is not something I see much of in modern fantasy. Why was it important to include this difficulty in Lysande’s journey?

I was hoping to show the lived experience of overlapping mental and physical struggles – the combination of those two things at once can be very dangerous, and Lysande has learned to keep her struggles a secret. She’s a high-performing person who manages to conceal a lot of her emotional life. It was important to me to show the toll that these kinds of problems take on the body and mind at once, and how denial and shame work to keep that pain hidden.

The effects of chimera scale are based on effects that I experienced in my own struggle with illness. Mentally, Lysande’s scale use is calming, but physically it acts as a stimulant. This was modelled on an unhealthy cycle of behaviour I experienced where those two things – physical stimulus and mental calm – would be happening at once. I hope that by showing Lysande’s struggle with damaging behaviours, I can help someone else out there to feel a little less alone. That’s something I found, myself, from reading or watching stories about similar health struggles: I felt better after experiencing those stories, even if they were emotionally tough.

4. How do you think your experience as a poet influences your approach to writing a novel?

The aesthetic possibilities of language really open up in poetry. I think language is beautiful, and there’s a power in a writing style that can speak to the senses and to the deeper emotions. My approach to writing inherits something from my love of poetry, although I do feel that writing is a constant learning process, and I’m always trying to improve my writing.  

One aspect of poetry that has influenced my prose is the search for more specific words, whether that’s nouns, adjectives, or verbs – words that say exactlywhat I want to say and aren’t just the first ones I grab for in my mental bag. I’m also a fan of combinations of words that suggest rather than tell. For example, saying that someone has a knife-like smile or a dangerous smile is different to saying that they have a mean smile.

Poetry also makes me conscious of rhythm: what a short sentence can do, what a long sentence can do, and how alliteration or other techniques can create different rhythms. It helps me to think about the beat of my words, and how that can match the action of a scene. A character’s slow observation has a different rhythm to furious warfare, for example, and the accumulation of insight has its own particular and peculiar rhythms.

5. What was the last great book you read? What are you reading now? What is next on your to-read list?

I really enjoyed Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, Circe by Madeline Miller, and The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. Those three books seemed beautiful and powerful at once; they all feature elegant prose, but they also have emotional journeys that leave a lingering ache.

I’ve just started reading Ocean Vuong’s poetry collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds. As in his debut novel, he writes with such beauty about difficult and painful things.

Some fantasy books I have my eye on to read soon are Aliette de Bodard’s Fireheart Tiger, Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun, and when it comes out, Suyi Davies Okungbowa’s Son of the Storm – I’m very impatiently awaiting that one!

6. Can you share your plan for any future installment(s) in the world of The Councillor

I’m working on the sequel to The Councillor at the moment, and wrangling with the story. Some of the tension between two characters boils over in the second book and there are consequences, both personal and political consequences. Lysande is also grappling with a question about her identity and trying to make sense of who she really is. If all my scenes make it through edits, then these words should give some hints: book, rope, fire, birth.  


Many thanks to E. J. for her thoughtful responses.

Enter the giveawayPre-order on Bookshop.org

Review: The Councillor

Title: The Councillor (March 2, 2021)
Author: E.J. Beaton
Pages: 484
Series: The Councillor #1 (Series Tracker)


Lysande is a scholar, plucked out of an academy at a young age to work for the Iron Queen of Elira. When the queen is killed by an unknown assassin, Lysande is thrust into a leadership role in the kingdom, with little support and only her wits to guide her.

What an outstanding debut novel. Lysande is a gem of a main character in a high fantasy world that feels familiar yet fresh. Beaton weaves an intricate plot packed to the brim with tantalizing ingredients – underground secret societies, complex political maneuvering, passionate romance, dastardly treachery, and forbidden magic. This book also tackles drug addiction in a way I haven’t seen in other fantasy novels. I’d strongly recommend this, especially for fans of Guy Gavriel Kay.

★★★★¼

My thanks to the publisher for the review copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Dragonbone Chair

The Dragonbone ChaiirTitle: The Dragonbone Chair (1988)
Author: 
Tad Williams
Pages: 
672
Series: Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn #1, Osten Ard Saga #1 (Series Tracker)


What an enjoyable read. This story feels special and timeless. Williams’s worldbuilding is deep and impressive. Although he raises considerably more questions than he answers, I’m fully invested in seeing this through to the end.

This series has been on my TBR pile for the longest while and if all goes well, I hope to work my way through the remaining Osten Ard books in anticipation of the new book being released in 2021.

★★★★¼ out of 5