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May 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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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 reputation. 

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.

Tad 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 challenge.

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.

SFRevu:  What's 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 novel online.)

SFRevu:  What does Fantasy offer that Science Fiction can't? Why is gaining popularity among readers?

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 readers.)

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 people's worldview?

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 thereafter.

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 these questions?

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 multi-volume again?"

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 about Iran?

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 pre-linguistic level.

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

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