The War of the Flowers
by Tad Williams
Review by John Berlyne
Orbit Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 1841491276
Date: 01 May 2003 List Price £17.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
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.
[See an Interview with Tad Williams by Iain Emsley]
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 he's 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.