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The Witchwood Crown: The Last King of Osten Ard - Book One
Publisher: DAW Books, Inc.

The Witchwood Crown: The Last King of Osten Ard - Book One starts off a new trilogy by Tad Williams that brings him back to the vast world he created when he told the tale of a young kitchen boy who would become king, and the war that surrounded him and that eventual rise to power.

The Witchwood Crown takes place some thirty years after the end of the war with the Storm King, and King Simon and his wife, Queen Miriamele, have been good rulers as they sit on the High Throne. Unfortunately, the time between this story and the end of To Green Angel Tower has seen some tragedy for the royal couple. Specifically, their son, Prince John Josua, died some years back because of a strange and unknown illness. Now John Josua's son, Morgan, is the heir to the throne and he isn't quite living up to his grandparents' hopes of what a prince should be.

When the story starts, Simon, Miriamele, Morgan, and a large retinue are traveling north to visit the old and dying Duke Isgrimnur, and Morgan spends most of his nights drinking and womanizing with his friends and bodyguards, Sirs Porto, Astrian, and Olveris. While the three knights are skilled enough to keep Morgan safe from any physical harm, it seems that they only help to enable his vices. Of course, Prince Morgan sees no real harm in these actions, but when he starts to befriend some new people, Morgan starts down a character arc that, hopefully, will turn him into the proper prince and eventually, the king he must someday become. These newcomers in Morgan's life are Snenneq and his betrothed, Qina, who meet the prince when the royal procession makes their way to Isgrimnur's home. Qina is the daughter of one of King Simon's oldest friends, a troll named Binabik, and given how Simon and Binabik's relationship was in the past, it should be no surprise that the king and queen wish for Morgan to befriend the younger trolls.

Meanwhile, in the north, the Norns are stirring. Their immortal ruler, Queen Utuk'ku, has awoken from the restorative sleep that she fell into at the end of the Storm King war, and she is starting to make new plans. While loyal to his queen and people, Viyeki, High Magister of the Order of Builders, is worried that the queen is being manipulated by Lord Akhenabi, the leader of the Order of Song (the Norn magicians). His worries only grow when he receives orders to take the Builders out of Nakkiga and across the countryside, escorted by a contingent from the Order of Sacrifice (the Norn military) and, despite his high station, he is kept in the dark about what their ultimate mission is.

Queen Utuk'ku and Lord Akhenabi have other plans in the works as well. One such plan has a hand of the Queen's Talons, an elite division of the Order of Sacrifice, sent out on two different missions. The first is to retrieve an ancient set of bones of a famous Norn that fell centuries ago. After completing that task, they are then sent out to track down a dragon and bring it back to Nakkiga alive. The five members of this hand include Viyeki's own half-blooded daughter, Nezeru; the group's singer, another half-blood called Saomeji; the hand's harsh leader, Makho and his two close friends, Ibi-Khai and Kemme. In their quest for the dragon, the group is given control of a giant named Goh Gam Gar and their paths also cause them to attract the attention of a mortal in the employ of the Queen named Jarnulf. While it is clear to the reader that Jarnulf has his own motivations for staying with the Queen's Talon, and it isn't for their safe return, he must walk a fine line between helping them as a scout and trying to find some way to stop their mission from succeeding.

The area around Nakkiga isn't the only place in Osten Ard that is in turmoil. King Simon and Queen Miriamele are worried that they have not heard word from the Norn's lighter cousins, the Sithi, in many years. When they return to their castle after their travels to Isgrimnur's home, they learn that the Sithi had sent a messenger, but she was discovered close to death from a poisoned arrow. As the Sithi woman fades in and out of consciousness, they learn that she was meant to deliver some important message, but they do not know what. As her health degrades, the royal couple decides to send her back to her people along with a small envoy in the hopes of learning why the Sithi have broken off contact with Simon and also to warn them about the rumors of the growing Norn activity.

Along with the mission to find the Sithi, the King and Queen need to organize another quest. At the behest of dying Isgrimnur, Miriamele's uncle, Prince Josua (her late son's namesake), and his family need to be found. Long ago, he, his wife, and their two children left and after only a few short letters, disappeared. Isgrimnur feared for the children's well being, and regretted not knowing where they were, but given the turmoil surrounding both the Norn and the Sithi, Simon and Miriamele have to wonder just how important this particular request is and if it can wait for a more peaceful time.

There are several other story arcs playing out between the pages of The Witchwood Crown. In Nabban, unrest between the Duke and his slightly younger twin brother only grows as their borders are frequently raided by the nomadic Thirthings-Folk, and through a couple of characters, we get insights into both sides of those skirmishes. We also see a bit of court politics as Princess Idela, John Josua's widow, attempts to tempt Pasevalles, Lord Chancellor to the High Throne, into her bed. What exactly her motivations are is unclear, but Pasevalles attempts to stay one step ahead of the princess in the hopes of not getting too tangled in more politics than he can handle. We also see another brand of politics in Nakkiga as Viyeki's mortal mistress, Tzoja, has to deal with life in her master's house while Viyeki is away, and Viyeki's wife, Lady Khimabu, sees his absence as chance to clean up her household a bit.

As both a return to a well-established world and an opportunity for newcomers to enter Osten Ard for the first time, The Witchwood Crown is a compelling tome. I read the book without the background of the original trilogy, but I had read the much shorter work, The Heart of What Was Lost which not only introduces some characters like Viyeki and Sir Porto, but it also shows the events right after the Storm King was defeated and what led to the Norn society deciding to accept their half-blood offspring into their lives instead of shunning them as they always had before. Even without that primer though, The Witchwood Crown does a great job of laying down foundations when necessary, and not wholly requiring you to know what happened in the original trilogy, though it is clear that many of the comments and nods made between established characters are just the tip of the iceberg more thoroughly explored in the first Osten Ard saga, Memory, Sorrow and Thorn.

-J.R. Nip, GameVortex Communications
AKA Chris Meyer
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