The War of the Flowers by Tad Williams
Orbit (UK) HCVR: ISBN1841491276 PubDate: May2003
Review by John Berlyne
704 pages List price £17.99
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Tad Williams Interview with Iain Emsley
It is hard to know what to make of the weighty new novel by Tad
Williams. His is a well respected and rightly popular name amongst our
genre writers and his sales and legions of fans are testimony to his
talents. For all this popularity, Williams is a writer whose works I
have yet to delve into and so I was very much looking forward to The
War of the Flowers as my chance to sample his wares and confirm his
A rare entity in current publishing trends (and the
Williams canon too, for that matter,) The War of the Flowers is a
one volume, stand alone fantasy. At over 700 pages, one could argue that
it could have made a healthy two-volume story, but I guess that’s moot!
What we have instead, is Williams’ take on a popular and well-trodden
fantasy story, that of the secondary world. We’ve seen this in many
forms – from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Wizard
of Oz to Narnia, through to Donaldson’s Thomas
Covenant novels and it is a staple of the genre that I enjoy
seeing reinterpreted. As well as these acknowledged classics, there is
now a darker variety of secondary world emerging – I’m thinking here of
works like Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Miéville’s King Rat,
which both tell of a London underground that you really don’t want to
take a ride on, where the unreality spills into the world we know with
some serious intent and the city, rather than the land is the focus.
Whilst paying homage to the classic stories, Williams’ Fairyland (named
thus) firmly places him in this newer and darker camp.
Theo Vilmos is a bit of a loser – a musician and
singer, he has never progressed further in his field than playing in
bars and clubs with a succession of second rate bands. Like most normal
people, he has bobbed along, subsisting but never managing to fulfill
his ambitions and to make matters worse, we meet him just as his luck –
such as it is – begins to turn sour. His current band splits over
“musical differences” and so he returns to his pregnant girlfriend to
find her in the middle of a miscarriage. Following this tragic event she
dumps him and so he returns to live with his mother (from whom his is
all but estranged) only to learn that she is soon to die of cancer.
It is not a jolly opening – in fact the first
hundred pages of this novel make for a grim fairy tale indeed.
Running alongside this real world scenario, we
learn that storm clouds are gathering in Fairyland, clouds that auger a
new war of the Flowers. Lord Hellbore, head of one of the six ruling
Flower houses, is making pacts and “doing” politics with some dark, dark
creatures and he issues the spine-chilling order – “War is coming. The
child must die.”
Following his mother’s death, Theo is going through
her effects when he comes upon a manuscript, apparently written by a
great uncle. The writings are an account of time spent by the uncle in
another world – part travelogue and – to Theo’s eyes- clearly part
fiction. Sure enough, soon after this discovery, events lead our
unsuspecting protagonist himself to be drawn in this other world and he
finds there that he is every bit the stranger in a strange land. What
follows is an epic story, full of wonders and horrors, grand operatic
themes and Machiavellian schemes that would put the Borgias to shame.
There is a lot going on in this big novel and when
looked at in the most general terms, I can report that it is an
enjoyable enough read. However, closer examination uncovers the fact
that it doesn’t quite work
Not being able to compare The War of the Flowers
with Williams’ other stuff puts me a slight disadvantage as far as
reviewing this piece goes. I don’t know if this novel is representative.
My feeling is that this is a writer who is used to dealing with massive
story arcs, but also used to spacing them over three or four volumes.
What we have here is a sprawling and unevenly paced story in which the
actual ideas themselves are far more elegant than the way in which they
are presented – and there are some really great ideas here. But
it is how ideas knit together that denotes great fiction and the
plodding plot of The War of the Flowers is a disjointed one at
best, ill-fitting and a bit leaky, like old plumbing at worst. I stick
my neck out here as, as well as strong editing (this book is a tad too
long - ‘scuse the pun!) I cannot help but wonder how well the novel was
outlined in the writing process.
It could be that the entire thing was planned out
in minute detail before even a word of dialogue was written (and if so,
forgive me, Mr Williams) but I find that hard to believe. The story of
The War of the Flowers is so meandering and full of internal
contradictions; loose or at best poorly tied ends; unresolved peripheral
characters; ill defined geography; threats and tensions that dwindle to
nothing; redundant info-dump and convenient coincidences, it comes
across at times as little more than a fantasy soap. Now, don’t get me
wrong here – there is certainly nothing wrong with soaps - few dramatic
forms present the cliff-hanger any better - but their story arcs
are not known for either their profundity or their finesse.
The War of the Flowers takes a long while to
get going – Williams spends a lot of time setting Theo up for his
various falls before he actually goes anywhere. Then, for the majority
of the novel, he is a helpless protagonist, a reactor, merely
buffeted along on the winds of the back story. Neither reader nor
character know why he is even there. Only rarely does he
instigate or do anything (and those are the best bits of the story!)
When he should be moving the story along, Williams has Theo taken out to
a restaurant for dinner – or out to some nightclub – and such stalling
robs the novel of it’s hard earned thrust. The net result is that The
War of the Flowers never really takes off, the prose doesn’t fly and
with a book this size, the last thing the author wants the reader to be
aware of, is how many pages there are still left to plough through
before he or she can get on with reading something else.
For all the faults in its execution, The War of
the Flowers is worth the good week or so you’ll need to get through
it. As a genre treatment and examination of peasant revolt against the
oligarchy of the ruling class, it touches on some interesting areas; as
a huge melting pot of fun, interesting creatures and cool monsters it is
as good as anything else on the shelves; as a wide ranging secondary
world adventure, the themes that form the central supports of the book
are solid and inventive enough to keep you reading to the end. Indeed as
a topical soap opera equivalent, The War of the Flowers will keep
you glued to the set. You may even be talking about it for a week or
two. But in the long run this is not a classic novel, or even a classy
one. I read it, I mostly enjoyed it, but in a week or two or three, the
impression it made will doubtless fade away to nothing.
Williams Interview with Iain Emsley
Tad Williams has been instrumental in
recharging the batteries of Fantasy. His latest novel, War of the
Flowers, takes the reader to a very different Faerieland from the
one commonly presented.
SFRevu: Growing up, when did you first get
interested in SF/Fantasy?
TW: I was interested in Fantasy in the broadest meaning
from the very beginning, from the Milne books and Wind in the Willows
before I could read to myself to Bradbury and Tolkien, (both of whom I
read by the time I was nine or so.) In fact, I had to make a conscious
effort to try other kinds of books as well, since there was so much SF
and Fantasy around for a young reader to discover and it would have been
easy to read nothing else.
SFRevu: What do you read these days?
TW: You name it, but an awful lot of non-fiction. I
still read SF and F, but I read other modern authors at least as much,
plus some other genre work, notably crime fiction in a kind of snackish
sort of way.
SFRevu: Were you a writer as a child? That is, did you make up
your own stories?
TW: I've always been a storyteller, as opposed to a
writer, which came late. I wanted to be a comic book artist for a long
time, and would write and draw comics. I was a songwriter. I did
parodies of things to amuse my friends. But the idea of actually
writing a book didn't occur to me until I was in my mid-twenties.
SFRevu: Why do you write genre? Do you feel a
stronger affinity for one genre or another?
TW: Well, part of it was that I felt like I had a good
understanding of the SF&F genre when I began – that I would be a better
judge of whether I was doing decent work than starting in some less
familiar area. Since then, there's been the important fact of having a
paying audience; something only a fool would turn his back on too
blithely. But also I enjoy the challenge of genre, namely, being able to
write as good and as "literary" a work as I wish as long as every five
pages or so one of my characters almost gets eaten by a giant bug or
something. Having to do both things at the same time – that's the
I like both genres, and in fact most of my favourite writers growing up
– Sturgeon, Bradbury, Moorcock, Le Guin, Leiber, Zelazny, Dick – didn't
really hew to a very solid line between the two.
SFRevu: Who is
your ideal reader?
TW: I think most writers' ideal reader would be
themselves. I have a theory that you can't really write for anyone else
without pandering or over-reaching. You write the book you'd really
like to read, and then you hope that there are enough people reasonably
like you to buy it so you don't have to go live in the gutter and eat
things other people throw away.
SFRevu: How do you write? Do you plan out your books before you
start? Do you write every day?
TW: I have to do some planning, especially with
multi-volume stories (where you otherwise have the weird problem of
having published the first part of your story and so you can't change it
just about the time you realize you screwed it up.) And I do further
little mini-outlines along the way, but those are mostly about pacing.
I try to write most days, but I also respect my instincts at this
point. Some days it's just not there and you're better off answering
mail or tormenting the pets.
SFRevu: How did your first book sale come about?
TW: I wrote Tailchaser’s Song (a fantasy about
cats) and sent it to one well-known publisher who sent it back in,
approximately, seventeen seconds. The next one on my list was DAW
Books, and they bought it. The rest is, if not history, a very important
part of my life.
your most popular book? Why?
TW: Couldn't say, although I think what I'm best-known
for overall would be Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn (sometimes known
as The Dragonbone Chair books) but it's different in different
markets. In Germany, which has become very important for me, it's
probably Otherland. In general, though, I think the nature of
epic-fantasy readers is such – the median age, hunger for material, etc.
– that those books get passed around and recommended a lot. We'll see
if that happens with the upcoming Shadowmarch books, which is the
first time I've returned to that area.
SFRevu: Of your
own books, do you have a favourite? Was it because of the idea, the
characters, your life situation while you wrote it, the way it turned
out, something else?
TW: As I often say in public (and in private when I'm
boring my family and friends) a writer's favourite book is always the
one being worked on. This carries over to other fields, which is why
you see lots of old bands grumbling that the audiences don't want to
hear their new rock opera based on Finnegan's Wake, but just keep
screaming for their 1973 chart-toppers instead. I sympathize deeply
(with both sides.) Whatever's done, that's old news. I love and am
proud of the books I've written, but I'm done writing them, and I'm much
more engaged with the new work.
SFRevu: What other writers do you feel you have
something in common with?
TW: In our own field, I would have to say I feel a
certain affinity with Dan Simmons, Orson Scott Card, Greg Bear, Neil
Gaiman, George R. R. Martin, and Connie Willis, just to name a few,
although Card and Bear are more known as SF writers, and Willis more as
a short-story writer, but I like to think that what I have in common
with them is that I have a certain large scope to my ideas and writing,
and that I'd rather try new things than simply become the owner of a
franchise. (The only reason I started writing epic fantasy again was
because Shadowmarch started out as an attempt to write a serial
SFRevu: What does
Fantasy offer that Science Fiction can't? Why is gaining popularity
TW: These things go in waves. There was a time when SF
was the highly commercial genre, and covered the full spectrum between
what might be called "starter fiction", sometimes termed space opera,
and the literary end – in other words, you could start reading it at the
fairly undiscerning age of eight or nine and keep moving to more and
more ambitious work until you were reading essentially literary novels
(a la Malzberg or Delany or Le Guin or whoever) that were nevertheless
part of the SF genre. Nowadays – and by the way, this is all guesswork
on my part, since I don't know the actual statistics – that role, at
least in the "starter fiction" area, seems to have been largely usurped
by Fantasy. Young readers tend to come in reading stuff based on RPGs
and television shows and movies, the sort of cartoon-y end of the genre,
and then may move on to either writers like (I hope) me and George
Martin, or may cross sideways into the similarly ambitious SF writers,
but they're not finding as much stuff aimed at their level at the
beginning in SF these days, just because there isn't the commercial
ecosystem to support it.
(This grand theory is ameliorated slightly by things like Star Trek and
Star Wars books, which do fill that function for some beginning
SFRevu: How do you feel about the future? What
makes you the most hopeful and the most fearful?
TW: Do you mean the real future or the future of
my genre? If you mean the real world's future, I believe human beings
are essentially creative and resilient and, in the words of George
Eliot, there is a "growing good", however hard to see it might be in the
short term. If we don't do anything drastically stupid, we will improve
things and solve many of the problems that plague us now. However, the
current government of the US (along with its more jingoistic,
short-sighted supporters) worries me, and that kind of live-for-today,
screw-the-next-generation approach angers me: I don't believe we're
creating a more peaceful world, rather the opposite. I suppose if you
have to live in the Roman Empire it's better to be inside it than
outside it, but I never said I wanted to live in the Roman Empire.
SFRevu: Does writing have a role in shaping
TW: Ideas certainly have a role, but, unfortunately, bad
ideas work for that just as well as good ones. It's the stickiness of
the idea that matters, in conjunction with the importance of what it
addresses. (Thus, the bad idea of Holocaust Denial has more painful
social impact than the equally stupid idea of Moonwalk Denial, since the
former gives aid and comfort to racists as opposed to just ordinary
cranks.) I think the Meme Theory has a lot to say for itself, since the
shifting balance of political philosophy in the world today seems to
ride on a series of fairly simple thoughts – Allah Wants Jihad! or Peace
Through Strength! or Violence is Always Wrong! – that people absorb
almost at a cellular level, and which are not easily dislodged
SFRevu: What are you currently working on?
TW: Now that The War of the Flowers is finished,
I'm working on a pair of projects with my wife, Deborah Beale – a
young-reader book called The Dragons of Ordinary Farm
and an animal fiction about raccoons entitled "Urchin's Luck". And of
course I'm in the process of editing and re-shaping the first online
year of Shadowmarch into the first volume of
the book version.
SFRevu: How do you view the current trend in
genre fiction for a more Urban or Industrial setting? Was the return to
Faerie a direct break from the Futurism of Otherland?
TW: Well, maybe, but you may have noticed it was a
pretty modernistic version of Faerie (which in fact was the initial
appeal of the idea for me.) I think in general that SF&F is a big
enough entity now (commercially and otherwise) that there's an
evolutionary pressure to move away from the centre and to find new
niches. Since the centre is so clotted with epic fantasy just now,
there will be a trend to find new forms (or at least
recently-underexploited forms.) If that goes on long enough, twenty
years from now someone will write a big three-volume fantasy with
castles and magic and someone else will ask, "Is this part of a new
trend away from single-volume, self-pitying fantasy poem-fiction (or
whatever the current genre mainstream might be)?"
SFRevu: You have a reputation for asking
difficult questions of the Fantasy genre and exploring different
perspectives within the genre. How and why did you come around to asking
TW: As I mentioned answering another question, I write
the books I want to read, more or less. So I guess I'm just doing the
obvious thing, which is trying to figure out what I want in a book that
will evoke the genre I love without insulting my intelligence. Then I
try to write that book. I think the only thing that separates me from
many, many other ambitious writers is that I've done a lot of my work at
a critically-reviled end of the genre – but that's also the part of the
genre with the largest readership, so I have a large potential audience
for my small subversions.
SFRevu: Was there a sense that you had to write
a single volume as a change from series? Did you want to take a break
from the long series?
TW: Every time I finish a multi-volume story, I say,
"Never again!" My joke is that after I finished Memory, Sorrow &
Thorn, I told my friends that if I ever started another one of those
long things, they should shoot me. So there I was writing Otherland,
and I used to point out, "Obviously, they're either not very good
friends or not very good shots." No, something has to compel me to
start it before I'll give up years of my life on one project (after
that, finding out how the story ends is compulsion enough.) With
Otherland I really liked the initial idea –
couldn't get it out of my head. With Shadowmarch I wanted to do
a project online, but decided after year that I would beggar and cripple
myself if I went on (because I had to write other books at the same time
to make up for the lack of online income.) But once I'd started, I
couldn't even think of leaving the story unfinished: that's like
deserting your comrades under fire, both the readers and the
characters. And when I finish Shadowmarch, I'm sure an agonized
cry will lift to the heavens, "Won't someone stop me before I
SFRevu: How did you come to the idea of having
the Flowers as the leaders of Faerie? Did you want to explore the idea
of democracy in what is traditionally a monarchy? Was this a subtle
comment upon the current idea of monarchies in Fantasy?
TW: I think the concept of Flowers as ruling families
came primarily from the Victorian fairy-tale and its obsession with
charming little garden-related fairies, in comparison to earlier and
more robust folk-tales in which nature bigger and scarier, and so are
the fairies themselves. (In my book there's mention of an earlier and
less effete generation of fairies, the "Tree People", whom the modern
day Flowers have supplanted.)
In fact, the political ideas in The War of the Flowers are all
over the shop, because I didn't have any specific agenda. Oddly, while
one of the horrors of the story is something that echoes the 9/11
attacks and almost kills the protagonist (something that was already
planned for the book before the actual events of 9/11/01), the heroic
resistance is more akin to a mullah and his followers – how's that for
both sides of the fence? But, yes, there is a fairly strong
anti-oligarchic feeling in the book, and it couldn't help but be
informed by current politics. I'm living in a country that talks about
using aggressive military force to save the world for democracy and
whatnot, but our last election was between two scions of what have to be
called family dynasties – Gore is the son of a senator, Bush the son of
a president and grandson of a senator (a senator who actively aided the
Nazis until they declared war on America, by the way, and who had assets
seized for trading with the enemy long after war was declared) – in
which the election itself was handed to the man who had fewer votes by
the US Supreme Court, because of the votes of two members who should
have recused themselves for their obvious political ties to the
administration to whom they gave the election. And we're complaining
SFRevu: You have an intriguing idea in the
comparison between Story and Music when Theo joins in the goblin group.
Can you expand on this? Do you see a similarity between the idea of
Story and musical groups where there are a range of voices and talents
that combine to create a whole?
TW: I think I hid one of my bigger ideas in Otherland
– namely, that Story is more than a convenience or a grab-bag of
information, that Story is a form that helps to define the very nature
of consciousness. Music is slightly different, and operates at a
different part of the wavefront between the conscious and the
subconscious – the information it contains is evocative at a
Actually, I'm not sure I can give this question the answer it deserves
in less than several pages, since it's about stuff that interests me a
lot. Suffice to say, there's a lot in my work about Story, and music is
a big part of my life too, and when they get mixed together there's
always quite a bit of interesting metaconscious activity going on.
SFRevu: Are the shifting boundaries of the
domains a reflection on the multi-verse? Is this a throwback to
Moorcock? Is Theo's journey a development upon the traditional quest as
utilized by Tolkien?
TW: I would say that at the level of intent, I was more
interested in walking a line between two powerful but conflicting needs
in fantasy fiction.
Epic fantasy as a whole is pleasurable to its readers in large part
because it names and enumerates the fantastical. Almost everybody who
loves Tolkien's Middle-Earth loves it because of the completeness of the
invention, the detailed history, the sense that you could go to any part
of the scenery and discover more scenery behind it, not just the
paint-pots, wires, and wooden flats of a backstage area (whereas in bad
epic fantasy, it's hard to ignore that stuff.) But the glories of
another main branch of fantasy fiction is ineffability. When the
character in the famous M. R. James ghost story blows an old whistle and
something comes, what's so effective is that we never quite know
what that something is. It's different, it's mystical, it's very, very
frightening. And in most fairy-fiction, it's the idea of beauties and
terrors we can't quite grasp that makes us hungry for more.
So I was trying to reconcile those two irreconcilables, limitless detail
and limitless mystery in The War of the Flowers (In fact, this is
true for most of my fiction, but was set out as a puzzle in particularly
cogent form while working on this book.) Thus, while trying to create a
believable, modern, working fairyland, I also wanted to keep
Mystery alive. The slipperiness of geography was one of the places I
decided I needed Mystery to trump the equally powerful allure of making
the world-building blueprints available to the public.
Tad Williams was talking to Iain Emlsey