Ted Williams’ cycle on the Light Horde had a major impact on the development of the fantasy genre in the 1990s and 2000s. And it’s not just that they were inspired by George Martin in writing Game of Thrones. The first trilogy of the series, “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn”, published in 1988-1993, marked the transition from traditional high fantasy in the style of Tolkien to a more serious and ambiguous modern epic fantasy.
Although The Dragon’s Throne Throne and subsequent books still have a clear influence on the Professor and his ideas, Williams has from the beginning introduced elements into the genre that make him look at famous trails from a different angle. And he resorts to some tricks even before it becomes fashionable – for example, the death of an important positive character, for whom readers are sick. Galina Beltyukova talks about several common features of fantasy, which Williams popularized or even brought to the genre.
Focus on political intrigue
In the Williams cycle there is a canonical struggle between Good and Evil, there are enough manifestations of the supernatural and religious references. And one of the main antagonists is very similar to Sauron, especially in the first volume. But unlike most other fantasy novels written before the early 1990s, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn focuses more on political intrigue and power struggles than on quests. It is around the confrontation between the two sons of the deceased king – Elias and Joshua – that the main conflict of the novels is built. At the same time, the author describes in detail how both contenders for the throne win the loyalty of aristocrats and the population and attract allies. Magic plays a rather minor role here – just one of the tools for gaining superiority.
At the same time, Williams’ world is very realistic – threats, bribery, hostage-taking and the like are used to achieve political goals. These are far from open and respectful discussions in the style of the Knights of the Round Table in between the tournaments that Simon, one of the main characters in the series, dreams of.
Although the balance of power in the Light Horde is largely determined by the balance of power between Elias and Joshua and their allies in the subordinate regions, the church and ancient magical beings, the Sith, Norns and other peoples, are also playing a role.
The past is not always the “golden age”
Often the plot in fantasy novels begins at the sunset of the greatness of the state or even a few centuries after the peak of its development, and the end-to-end idea is that life used to be better, the treasury richer and the characters nobler. Williams, who came up with the idea of a cycle while thinking about what would happen after the death of King Arthur, begins the novel in the same paradigm.
After the death of King Prester John, the dragon’s conqueror and unifier of the country, who ruled the Light Ard for many decades, power passed to his sons. The eldest son, Elias, ascends the throne, but his feud with his brother continues. Councilor Elias Preirates performs sinister rituals, and clouds begin to thicken over the entire Light Ard. John’s reign is seen in all the golden ages of the country.
Gradually, however, the reader learns along with the characters that much in the stories of the past is embellished or changed – from heroic battles, which were not won by nobility, and ending with the fate of the legendary knight and friend of King Camaris. And the main lie, revealed in the final volume of “Memory, Sorrows and Thorns”, finally shows that there is no perfect past, because history is always written by the winners.
Ambiguous and deeply elaborated characters
To some readers, the cycle “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn” seems too slow. In many respects the reason for this is in the careful construction of the characters of the main characters, so that by the beginning of the active action their motivation was fully understood and they could empathize. In the course of the novels, Simon, Miriamel, Joshua and other characters face many obstacles, and overcoming them truly changes their character, attitude to life and duty. Simon from the final volume of the trilogy, bravely fighting the main antagonist, is not at all like 14-year-old Simon from the first volume, who dreams of brilliant tournaments and the attention of girls. At the same time, these changes are realistic and plot-based, they are easy to believe.
Although the cycle is divided into positive and negative characters, Williams uses halftones and prefers ambiguous characters. Even the protagonist can make a decision that will lead to the death of many people, and even the antagonist can at some point evoke sympathy. Moreover, the terrifying King of the Storm, who seeks to destroy people, was once compassionate and wise (readers can read more about this in the prequel “Brothers of the Wind”, which was published in English last year and is now being prepared for publication in Russian). “Gray” characters and ethically controversial decisions are so common in fantasy precisely because they make the story more realistic and exciting.
Serious elaboration of the world
The universe of the Light Horde is diverse from a geographical and political point of view, and the peoples living there are very reminiscent of the real times of the European Middle Ages: Rimmers – “Vikings”, Nabban – “Byzantines”, Ericlanders – “Germans”, Triting – nomads and so on. Previously, almost the entire territory of the Light Ard was occupied by the Sith (resembling elves), but after protracted conflicts with humans, they almost disappeared. Also in the north are trolls, norns (“dark” relatives of the Sith) and at least one dragon.
All these peoples and races differ not only in names. Williams wrote down his own characteristics for everyone, from geography and mentality to religion and local legends. In addition, in the course of the narrative it shows their complex relationships, in fact creates a real dynamic geopolitical map. Such an emphasis on socio-political aspects and “international relations” is now present in many fantasy cycles.
In the classic fantasy of the last century, there are few independent female characters, they at best play minor roles or are companions of great heroes. Princess Miriamel, the daughter and only heiress of King Elias, departs from this pattern. Although at the beginning of the first novel she looks like a fragile and insecure girl, crushed by her father, it soon becomes clear that this is not the case.
Miriamel quietly but consistently opposes the need to marry in dynastic interests, rebels against patriarchal stereotypes, masterfully learns to shoot a bow and fight with a sword, and eventually runs away from home, disguised as a boy. She has her own adventure and her own goals, which she achieves together or separately from other characters. Despite the fact that in her story there are classic trails like “virgins in trouble”, she is a self-sufficient heroine. It is possible that Miriamel inspired Martin to create Arya Stark.
The daughter of another ruler in the trilogy is also very different from the stamp of the lovely princess. She suffers from depression and mania, but is clearly a positive heroine, leads the resistance to the tyrant and tries in every way to achieve good for his people. The image of people (especially women) with mental health problems in this way is unusual for the fantasy of the early 90’s and once again demonstrates the complexity of the world of Williams.