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The War of the Flowers

by Tad Williams

(Orbit, £7.99, 758 pages, paperback, first published 2003, this edition published 22 April 2004.)

Review by Simeon Shoul

Caught on the cusp of thirty, wannabee rock-star Theo Vilmos is drifts through life in San Francisco, his career in slow cover scandecline. His latest no-hope band is imploding, his day-job sucks. Abruptly, slow decline becomes sky-dive as his girlfriend miscarries their baby, then kicks him out of her life. Within months his mother has died of cancer, and his musical career has evaporated.

In rapid retreat from cruel reality, Theo heads for the hills, hoping for a long rest-break and with nothing for company but the Journal of his Great-Uncle, Eamonn Dowd, detailing exotic (imaginary?) adventures in a steampunk Faerie sixty years before...

The Faerie that Dowd describes is, of course, anything but imaginary. Progressing in tandem with the mortal world it has advanced into a late twentieth-century sophistication, with mobile-phone analogues, vigorous telecommunications, and reservations for the few remaining 'wild' Fay, such as the ever-restive Goblins.

At the heart of this society, still entwined in the ancient folklore of Oberon and Titania, Green Women, Bridge-guarding trolls and flying Dragons, are the Flower families. Six ancient Houses, Hellebore, Hollyhock, Thornapple, Primrose, Daffodil and Lily, rule in uneasy cooperation, arguing, and sometimes fighting, over the pivotal issue of how Faerie, in an age of rapid changes and lost certainties, should interelate with the Mortal world.

An apparently minor result of these disputes is the arrival of something very nasty, and very dead, in the California boondocks, searching for Theo. Fleeing with the help of a knife-tongued pixie named Applecore, he plunges through a Gateway into Faerie. His principal reaction to the world he has entered, which both does and does not conform to his expectations, is confusion. He has considerable talents for social blundering and consistently manages to put his foot in his mouth.

As is typical in a Tad Williams story (he must be the most leisurely author in the genre) Theo only gradually comes to understand the society, history and politics that have ensnared him.

Slowly, very slowly, Theo grows into a comprehension of the issues at stake. He's entered a world with an almost Stalinist tinge of tyranny at its heart, and the power players ruling Faerie have some very ugly plans for the Mortal world. At the same time, Theo begins to uncover hints that his own place in the developing war that is wracking Faerie, is a lot more significant than he had imagined, and little by little he begins to take action.

What he doesn't do, however, is find a cause, and this is odd, because Williams has created a world that is full of good causes. Faerie is ripe for Revolution, and Theo is invited to join one, but he's not the kind to make quick or unconditional commitments.

On the other hand he does find a girl, yet she is strangely side-lined from the main action, and most of the pivotal moments. Opportunities arise in many ways for declarations of allegiance, and daring action, yet they are often allowed to slip away. Likewise opportunities for genuine pathos are not developed adequately, and have little impact on the reader.

The War of the Flowers is a slow, subtle, almost muted book. Theo is a man of strikingly average abilities, except where music is concerned, and Williams deserves credit for not letting this John Doe of a character metamorphose into Superman; nonetheless one does wish for a story with a touch more verve, and a character in the driving seat who is a lot more definite about who he is and what he's doing.

At the end, Flowers has good writing, and clever invention, but it's a long slow haul. If you like drifting along with a story, this will suit you, if you want more pace, and more impact, look elsewhere.

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