Tad Williams, The War of the Flowers (Daw, 2003)
Theo Vilmos is a loser, no doubt about it. He's in his early 30s and the only thing he has to show for his life is a string of garage bands. His girlfriend, Cat, has just miscarried their child and consequently split up with him, and his mother has just died of cancer. The only thing interesting or worth comment in Theo's life is that, with his mother's death, he has inherited a notebook from an unknown uncle. In the notebook Theo's uncle, Eamonn Dowd, relates the story of his life. It begins like a standard Edwardian-era life, but takes a turn when Dowd travels over to the faery realm. Theo, of course, believes this to be fiction, until strange things start happening to him: one evening, a small sprite appears in his cabin just moments before a monster from faery shows up to dispatch Theo. To save Theo's life, the sprite transports him over to the world of faery, where Theo learns that he is wanted by the two factions of faery battling it out. One side wants to make faery over into a world much like the mundane world, but run on magic rather than electricity. The other faction wants to return faery to the way it was, co-existing with the mundane world. And in between is Theo, the pawn.
The story is nothing new: it is simply a political story re-cast with fantasy trappings. At nearly 700 pages, one would think that Williams would be able to flesh out the world he is creating, but Williams seems to have the skill of taking twice as long to say something as is needed. Thus, both the story and the worldbuilding are thin in this huge novel. The first 50 pages, for example, are spent showing Theo's life collapsing when it could have been done just as effectively in 20. By the time the monster from faery shows up, you want Theo to cash it in because you are quite sick and tired of his whining life.
Worse still is Williams's mode of info dumping. For pages on end, we learn about the faery world by having one of its denizens make a statement, and then having Theo repeat the statement as a question. "That was a dryad." "A dryad?" It is almost as if Williams is as clueless as Theo and is wandering around as lost as his character, creating his world on the fly. This is probably not the case, but that mode of exposition certainly weakens the story.
The one redeeming virtue of this book is the idea of faery being industrialized. I'm not sure if it's entirely unique, but Williams's take on it is the first I've encountered. The faery have tapped into magic and use it to power a world that is eerily like our own, but just different enough to keep the reader off balance. How does an elevator work? How equivalent to television are faery mirrors? But in the long run, it's not enough to offset the otherwise weakly built world. Williams almost seems to think that if he populates his faery with enough different types of faeries, he doesn't need to flesh out his world. All we ultimately see is not a faery world, but an English countryside and then an urban center that happens to be populated by fascinatingly weird creatures.
[Matthew Scott Winslow]