I found The Return of the King quite a surprising book. After years of watching the films, I thought I knew exactly where things were going at each point, but the book surprised me time and time again. The first surprise was that the book opens with the Beacons of Gondor being lit before Gandalf and Pippin even arrive in Minas Tirith. This essentially made me see Denethor in a completely different light. Yes, he still makes some terrible decisions and is determined to burn to death with (totally not dead) Faramir. But he doesn't seem nearly as stubborn and selfish as he's made out to be in Jackson's film.
I adored Eowyn before, but rereading the book made me love her so much more. Her passion and strength and determination shine through time and time again. Merry and the reader are in the dark about Dernhelm's true identity until the moment that's been giffed a million times:
Honestly, though? I think my favourite part was Frodo and Sam and Merry and Pippin returning to the Shire to find that it's not the place they left behind. Their fight isn't over, because there's an unexpected and unwelcome guest there, destroying their home. It's such a great homecoming for things to NOT be perfect and idyllic, as they are in Jackson's films. It shows just how far the four of them have come, seeing how the rest of the Shire reacted, in contrast to the reactions of the stand-up-and-fight attitudes of the four characters we know and love so much.
I'll admit, I skim-read most of the appendices. Tolkien created a terrifying amount of detail about Middle Earth, from language rules to histories for entire dynasties of royalty to full chronologies for the events in the trilogy and thereafter. So the world building is second to none, but it felt somewhat anti-climactic to finish this absolutely amazing story and then be thrown into 200 pages of history. That said, I adored the history of Aragorn and Arwen, if only because it reminded me of this piece of amazingness.
In short, it was fabulous and I loved it, but the appendices were a little too much.
Have you read it? What did you think?