The kingdoms of Osten Ard are in turmoil. A resurgent Norn threat in the north threatens Rimmersgard and northern Erkynland. The tribes of the Thrithings are in turmoil, a conflict that threatens to spill across the borders into Nabban and Erkynland. Hernystir is in danger of falling under the power of a dark cult. Civil war threatens in Nabban. The High King Simon and the High Queen Miriamele both try to tackle these issues, but the number of their reliable allies is falling and their grandson and heir is missing. But the threat is greater and closer than they think, as for the first time in thousands of years, the deathless queen of the Norns prepares to leave her stronghold.
The Witchwood Crown marked the start of The Last King of Osten Ard, a fresh trilogy picking up thirty years after the events of Williams' break-out work, Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. It was a slow-paced novel but one that had to set up an awful lot of plot points, as well as revisiting characters from the first trilogy and introducing new ones. At the end of the book things kicked off, with Prince Morgan fleeing into the Aldheorte Forest, Unver beginning his unification of the Thrithings tribes, Miriamele setting off on a dangerous mission to Nabban and a band of Norns confronting a dragon.
Empire of Grass picks up on these plot points and expands on them, ticking along at a faster pace than the first novel (helped by it being a slightly shorter book), with us rotating between events in Nabban, the Hayholt, Aldheorte, the grasslands, Nakkiga, Naglimund and other locations quite rapidly. The key difference between the two trilogies is that Memory, Sorrow and Thorn was focused very tightly on Simon with occasional cutaways to other characters, but Last King is a broad-spectrum, multi-POV, multi-location, full-on epic fantasy series with a lot more going on in different places. The loss of tight focus may be bemoaned by some, but it does at least present us with a really epic story told on a huge scale.
Empire of Grass is also important in that it identifies the long-missing children of Josua and Vorzheva, whose identities and destinies have driven a lot of discussion by fantasy fans for well over a decade. We learn more about the twins and where their paths have led them, with a real sense of mythic power that both may hold the fate of the world in their hands, despite not being primary POV characters. We also learn more about Vorzheva, but Josua remains missing, with a hunt for him by agents of the crown forming an intriguing subplot through the novel.
As usual, Williams' gifts remain in atmosphere, with his stately worldbuilding and measured prose, and characterisation. I've seen criticism of the first book stemming from Simon's apparent lack of success in being king, but I see this as Williams simply furthering his subversion of epic fantasy tropes that began way back in 1988 with The Dragonbone Chair: it turns out that a kitchen boy with no background in statecraft might not be the best person to make king. It's made clear that the more experienced Miriamele is a far better ruler and the real power on the throne, which helps better explain why things get worse once she leaves for Nabban. The assumption that the guy who saved the world in the first series would automatically be a greater ruler who never did anything wrong is a bit odd, and is Williams' exploration of the question George R.R. Martin asked of Tolkien about Aragorn: yes, he may have been a great warrior, but does that mean has great insights into tax policy and crop rotation techniques?
If Williams does have a slight weak spot it's political intrigue: Nabban sets up the facade of being a hotbed of double-crosses and Xanatos gambits, but the final revelation of what's going on in Nabban is more than a little simplistic and lacking, with the villain explaining why they are doing everything and might as well have twirled a moustache in the process. There's also a decided lack of explanation as for why the powers in Nabban think they can win a multi-pronged conflict against multiple enemies simultaneously, which is what they seem to be setting up at the end of the book.
There's some great battle scenes, as the Norn invasion gets underway in full, and some excellent character beats (particularly among the Norns and half-Norns of Operation Dragon Retrieval, probably the best storyline in the new series). There's also some decided repetition stemming from Williams' decision not to expand the story to new geographical areas. The big battle takes place on the site of an already massive battle from the first trilogy, and seeing Morgan struggle through Aldheorte Forest for dozens of pages on end might have been more compelling if we hadn't seen Simon do exactly this in the first trilogy, even visiting many of the same exact places along the way.
Where Empire of Grass is most successful is furthering the themes that The Witchwood Crown explored so thoroughly: ageing, losing loved ones and the younger generation not listening to its elders and making the exact same mistakes all over again. There's a melancholy strain in this trilogy which recalls Tolkien at his best.
Empire of Grass (****½) is a somewhat tighter and better-paced book than its forebear, developing the first book's stories, characters and themes well, and setting things up splendidly for the final novel in the series, The Navigator's Children, which I would be expecting to be published in 2021. The novel is available in the UK and USA now.