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The War of the Flowers by Tad Williams

The War of the Flowers by Tad Williams
Book Name: The War of the Flowers
Author: Tad Williams
Publisher(s): DAW (US) Orbit (UK)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: May 4, 2004 (US) April 22, 2004 (UK)

Welcome to the first Classics Corner, where I’ll be reviewing fantasy novels from the mists of time. Well, not quite; more the books I’d missed out on reading when I’d given up on the genre between 1990 and 2004. If you’d like to make a comment or suggestion for a book to review (it doesn’t have to be limited to the dates above – I’ll read anything), please visit the Classics Corner thread in the forum. Now that’s done, let’s crack on.

After reading the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, I was intrigued as to how Tad Williams would deal with a single-volume story. The War of the Flowers centres around Theo Vilmos, a musician from San Francisco who is transported to another world, one where the fairy families are vying for power. Theo is caught up in the struggle and ensuing conflict, but will he live happily ever after?

At the start of the novel, it seems doubtful. The author is incredibly hard on his hero, almost to the point of brutality; Theo faces the death of his unborn child, the ensuing destruction of a relationship, the passing away of a parent – all this within the first fifty pages. It’s enough to make even the strongest hero drop to his knees and give up, but Theo finds it within himself to dig deep and carry on with his life despite these hardships.

It’s not all he finds. In with his mother’s belongings is a journal penned by his great-uncle, a work Theo at first believes to be fiction, until he is attacked and transported to the same world he’s been reading about. Once in that world, Theo’s as much an observer as we are, which is the book’s main problem; he finds himself manipulated into situations, so he’s forced to react rather than act, pulled along through the story until the conclusion, where he realises his true heritage and purpose in life. It’s an ending that feels too quick after such a fascinating build-up, but is followed by a heartening and fitting denouement – something which The War of the Flowers has in common with Memory, Sorrow and Thorn.

If it sounds like I’m being harsh, I don’t mean to be. Once other characters are introduced, it begins to feel appropriate that Theo is our eyes and ears in this strange new world, grounding us in the unreality of it all. Tad Williams creates a great supporting cast, one that – I feel – actually surpasses the strength of his main protagonist. We’re introduced to some of them in earlier chapters that act as interludes while Theo is in the real world, teased by their presence into wondering what part these individuals are going to play in the course of the novel. Some are introduced early, while others who have bigger parts to play are slipped in later, almost casually, so their return to the story can be a pleasant surprise.

Favourite amongst all these characters is the sprite, Applecore. Sent into our world to bring Theo back to the land of fairy, she immediately has to save his life in order to do so. Applecore is with Theo for most of the novel; acting initially as his guide and instructor, teasing him with her sharp and ready wit, she grows from being a novelty foul-mouthed Tinkerbell into Theo’s good friend. She has her own heroic journey through the novel, one that’s equally as important as Theo’s. Then again, that could be said for many of the characters in this book; the likes of Cumber Sedge and the goblin Button are two who play an important part in the novel’s proceedings after coming from what appears to be humble beginnings.

In Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, Tad Williams has a couple of thousand pages to develop characters; here he has only several hundred, yet it is done equally as well. It’s in this regard that he’s really excelled himself, giving us people to care about enough to cry out, “No!” when something bad happens to them, or to dwell on while we’re not reading. That said, such a ‘limited’ number of pages means he has to rein in any chance of a sprawling plot, meaning it’s more linear than it would be in a three-volume epic. It doesn’t disappoint, as the author appears to realise this and builds the plot accordingly, populating it with ample twists and turns for it never to be dull.

Admittedly, it does seem to take a while to get going – I can’t say exactly why, but I put it down for a few days close to the beginning – but once it’s in full flow, it makes the reader want to read more, to know more about what’s going to happen to these characters we care about so much. The author packs much into the seven-hundred-and-fifty pages, but it never feels like he’s tried too hard. There’s are several messages to be found in the book – environmental effects and the class structure of society are only two of them – but the reader is never lectured about them, merely presented with the evidence of how the fairy society, by mirroring our own, is facing dramatic change.

After what I have to admit was some initial reluctance, I really enjoyed this book. It’s entertaining in all ways, can be laugh-out-loud funny or look-over-the-shoulder scary in equal measure. While the fairy world may not be as ‘weird’ as I’d hoped, it is populated with characters to care for and a villain we hope they will prevail against. It’s a classic tale of good versus evil, one that leaves the reader wondering who will triumph, almost to the last page.



  1. Lee says:

    If you feel tempted, do yourself a favor and avoid the first massmarket paperback edition, it is full of typos and some of the volumes had chapters inverted.
    The story itself is indeed worth a read.

  2. Elfy says:

    Glad to see a review of this. It’s one of my favourite books ever. I like most of Williams’ work and this one stands out even from them. The book is worth reading just for Applecore, but I also really loved his vision of Faerie.

  3. A.E. Marling says:

    Thank you for reviewing this book. My fondest memory from it was the nightscape in the land of faeries. The swirl of galaxies painted the sky, with pulsing constellations, a wash of color and power.

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