Reading Tad Williams: “The War of the Flowers”

Having finally found a bit of breathing space in the midst of frantic Dissertation, I thought I’d pop in and write a quick review of Tad Williams’ excellent one-volume epic The War of the Flowers. 

In the tradition of other epic fantasy writers who turn to something a little more whimsical than is usually on offer with the genre of the epic, The War of the Flowers is narrated from the perspective of the 30-something, mostly-washed-up musician Theo Vilmos. One night, he finds himself attacked by an undead creature and is saved by the foul-mouthed sprite Applecore. Whisked into the realm of the Fairies, which exists alongside our own (and to some extent mirrors ours), he soon finds himself embroiled in a long-simmering war between the various great houses of this world, some of whom wish to co-exist with humans and others that want to obliterate them. In the process, he learns a great deal about himself and solves a troubling mystery about his own heritage.

It’s not everyone who can manage to write a single-volume epic fantasy, but as always Tad Williams shows himself a master of whatever genre he turns his hand to. The pacing is, for such a large novel, quite brisk, toggling effortlessly between brisk action set-pieces and the more arcane political machinations that one always expects from the best sorts of epic fantasy. There are characters from every walk of life in this mysterious fairy world, and there are family loyalties, class warfare, and all of the other trappings that make this genre one of the most complex and fascinating in contemporary literature.

The characters are fully-drawn which means that they are often quite awful and difficult to like. This goes for Vilmos as much as it does any of the more magical creations, for Theo is the epitome of what might be called privileged white manhood. He sometimes can’t seem to wrap his head around the idea that he is not entitled to an easy answer to all of his questions, and that sometimes one is caught up in events that sweep us along. The fact that, as a rather entitled man, this lack of agency comes as a shock, reveals a great deal about how the men in our world think about the way that they inhabit social spaces. Williams has a keen eye for the insufferable nature of this sort of behaviour, and he’s not afraid to allow us as readers to get quite annoyed with Theo throughout the novel.

Of course, this being Tad Williams, there is more than a little social commentary going on throughout the novel. The higher forms of fairies are notoriously cruel, unthinking, and exploitative, and they care little (or nothing) for the lives and well-being of their fellows. They ruthlessly exploit them to power their scientific (magical) advancements, but in doing so they inadvertently sow the seeds of their own eventual downfall. The War of the Flower makes it quite clear that so many of things that many people take for granted, both in the fantasy world that Williams has created and in our own, are built, from the foundations, on the exploitation of others. It’s a troubling realization, but that is part of the brilliance of this novel.

Though it was written in the early aughts, The War of the Flowers feels even more relevant today. Button the Goblin could just as easily be a stand-in for the incendiary politics of Bernie Sanders, and the wanton cruelty of Thornapple and Hellebore bear a surprising resemblance to certain nefarious parts of the American political system of 2016 (I’m looking at you, Donald Trump and Steve Bannon). When, at the end of the novel, everything in the world seems to have fallen into ruin and chaos, there is still a glimmer that a new, more just political order might emerge from the ashes of the old. That, ultimately, is a very optimistic view of the world that it is nice to see in epic fantasy.

All in all, I enjoyed The War of the Flowers quite a lot. I’ve always admired Williams’ ability to combine thickly layered plots with lush description, and both of those tendencies are on full display here. He has definitely earned his place in the pantheon of great epic fantasy writers of our generation, and I very much look forward to my continuing journey through his oeuvre. 

Next, it’s on to the Bobby Dollar series, which I like to think of as film noir meets John Milton. Stay tuned!

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