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The War Of The Flowers

01/07/2003. Contributed by Paul Skevington

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The War Of The Flowers’ is the latest offering from the talented and surprisingly adaptive author Tad Williams.

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I'm going to try really hard in this review not to use phrases such as 'Tad Williams has flower power' or 'Tad Williams proves he's no shrinking violet' but I can't guarantee that I will be successful in the attempt.

The War Of The Flowers by Tad Williams‘The War Of The Flowers’ is the latest offering from the talented and surprisingly adaptive author Tad Williams. His previous outings have included the 'Memory, Sorrow And Thorn' trilogy which I personally regard as a defining moment in modern fantasy and which should not be missed by any sane Crowsnest reader.

If this weren't enough, Williams has also successfully explored the Science Fiction genre with the ‘Otherland’ series, which proved to be a fresh and accessible take on virtual reality. If anyone remembers the dire 'The Lawnmower Man' movie you'll know this is no mean feat.

It is with these high expectations that I engaged with this novel and to my great relief after I'd finished it, I was still smiling.

‘The War Of The Flowers’ follows the story of young slacker Theo Vilmos. Theo is an aspiring musician who has just turned thirty and is beginning to feel that life isn't all it’s cracked up to be. He is stuck in a low-earning delivery job with an indifferent partner and sings in garage bands, in which he is more often than not the oldest member.

This sense of a lack of purpose in his life is exacerbated by a series of terrible and traumatic events that befall him, sending him eventually into a kind of self-imposed isolation. It is whilst he is here, at his lowest point, that events take an incredibly strange turn.

Theo finds himself, to his disbelief, forced to enter the parallel world of the fairies, fleeing from a nameless terror that pursues him in a terminator-esque fashion. It's from that point onwards that things get really weird.

Firstly, I would like to reassure you that if you read the word 'fairy' and immediately grimaced you have no need to worry. You're not in danger of finding one of these fairies hanging out at the bottom of the garden or stealing your teeth. Well, not unless they're knocking them out that is.

Williams' fairyland more heavily references older and darker sources of fairy mythology than the familiar peaceful Victorian fairy imagery we are used to. The nobility of the realm resemble aspects of the Irish Tuatha De Danann but the other occupants of the land are not limited to this source, Scandinavian and English influences are also evident. Think more Puck than Tinkerbell.

‘The War Of The Flowers’ is far more than just the sum of its parts though. Williams uses twisted versions of the familiar to make fairyland strange yet still oddly recognisable. Ancient fairy was traditionally symbolic of a fear of wild uncivilised places. Williams uses the technique of distorted recognition to invert this. His Fairy realm is a nightmare of urban expansion, which is perhaps a more relevant theme to modern readers.

This same technique also allows Williams to develop the wonderful and striking characters that inhabit this land such as the foul-mouthed Applecore and the bumbling Cumber Sedge. It is easy to fall in love with these creations. However, Williams uses the nature of fairy as an almost Brechtian distancing device that counteracts this tendency.

Just as we are certain that we know the character they prove that they are, as all good fairies should be, ultimately unknowable. Even the safest characters have an air of mystery and danger about them. The more threatening characters such as the genocidal maniac Hellebore operate in a similar fashion except here it is their closeness to humanity that is the truly frightening thing. A villain is not truly scary until you can understand his motives and Hellebore is certainly a scary villain.

Perhaps one of the few criticisms I could level at the book would be in its conclusion. The way the novel is written leaves me feeling as if it would have been better as one of William's longer works such as ‘Otherland’. The slow set-up and casual exploration of the world are indicative of that kind of series based fantasy that Williams specialises in.

True, there are many explosive and exciting events within the novel but they are like punctuation in what is at heart a quite slowly paced novel. The end of the book rushes upon the reader like an ignored deadline. After finishing the novel, you're left with an urge to find out when book two is coming out.

Despite this, ‘The War Of The Flowers’ is an ideal book for both new and established Williams readers. It is difficult to point to many other big name SF/fantasy writers who take so many innovative risks with their work and who manage to do so with such style.

‘The War Of The Flowers’ is a fine example of this brave approach to genre writing and, even with its minor defects, far surpasses the majority of other recent fantasy releases. We can only sit back and wonder what Williams will tackle next. Personally, I can't wait to find out.

Paul Skevington

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