The War of the Flowers by Tad Williams
"It was hard to live in the middle of all these old tales, to try to make sense of them. In fact, he felt like he was being eaten by a story... a story with teeth..."
I spent a lot of time with Tad Williams in college. Okay, not with him exactly, but he'd written the Green Angel Tower series, beginning with The Dragonbone Chair, and I was greedy for really good fantasy. I spent hours in Osten Ard wandering with Simon and Miriamele and Binabik through the snows of extended winter. The prose style is excellent, the plot detailed and descriptive, and Simon was the kind of hero a confused college girl wants to read about.
But then I spent the next four years -- 1998 through 2002 -- slogging through the Otherland series, which was complicated and unpleasant and trying to be cyberpunk, and the books came out so slowly that I'd forgotten the plot in between. And I did it because I'd look at the book covers and I'd remember Green Angel and maybe it was some kind of misplaced loyalty, because I never enjoyed a minute of it.
I got that same feeling of, "Well, okay, let's do this," when I picked up The War of the Flowers. I was immediately relieved when I realized this wasn't going to be a series -- even the blurb says, "Complete In One Volume!" But the same let-down feeling crept over me as I read the first few pages. Williams has pretty much abandoned his elegant prose style for what I can only describe as "Southern California prose." Casual, laid-back, slangy, tech-focused -- more like self-conscious Stephenson than Tolkien. It takes some getting used to, because fantasy prose is as much a part of the genre as the dragons and elves. Truthfully, the great pains that authors go to for that style usually show, but Williams always had it down effortlessly. It's kind of betraying to know that he can write high fantasy and doesn't.
But I can deal: I'm not a high language snob if there are mitigating factors. (Honest.) And once I hurdled past the language and the plot kicked in, that's where the scope of Williams's imagination really got interesting. It's not really the bones of the plot that intrigue, because hey, the plot is as old as Faerie tales. Theo Vilmos, aging kickabout musician, has a bit of a midlife crisis when his girlfriend miscarries their child and then dumps him. He also discovers a mysterious notebook written by his uncle, purporting to be a visit to Faerie. While lounging sadly in a remote cabin, a combination of circumstances boot him into Faerie itself, where the story really begins.
This Faerie isn't your average Charles de Lint, pan-pipes-in-the-meadowlands kind of place. It's as technologically advanced as ours, and Theo finds many things that are familiar but bewildering. He is almost helpless in the tide that sweeps him through the novel, and Williams renders the reader helpless too, withholding all the crucial information until it's almost too late. A seasoned fantasy reader will recognize many fantasy elements, but Williams twists and turns them to fit a sort of Faerie-cyberpunk universe. Theo gains and loses allies, makes enemies and dispatches them, but all in a bemused, lucky manner. There's a beautiful girl and an ugly troll, there are cars and electric lights and televisions, but just when the reader makes an assumption, it's yanked out from underneath her. It's what Williams attempted in Otherland and, I think, didn't quite pull off. Here it's not on such a grand scale, it doesn't have to be overexplained. It just happens and the reader is confused, but knows that Theo's confused too.
Eventually the plot takes an even more unexpected turn and things become clearer to Theo (and to the reader). He finds himself pitted against the major demesnes of Faerie and their powerful leaders. He has to save the world. It's basic, but that's like saying Osten Ard is basically Middle-Earth. Well, sure, but Williams stamps his worlds with character and detail that are all his own.
The War of the Flowers is Williams's best book in years. It's engaging and hints at a story beyond the story: the kind of thing that makes a reader wish that the book would last a bit longer, let her see a bit more of the story. Maybe even -- gasp! -- continue in a sequel.
The War Of the Flowers by Tad Williams