Friday, March 05, 2010

Tad Williams: The War of the Flowers

I have a younger brother and sister who unlike me got more into the fantasy reading after Tolkien, whereas I sampled some of it and decided that it was pointless, because it couldn't hold a candle to The Lord of the Rings. I read the first, maybe the first two actually, of a David Eddings' series for example, and got bored when I realised this would never end. Which is odd, because part of what you want when you read this type of escapist literature is for it to never end, obviously. But I think I saw the difference in quality between a trilogy that is really one book - where the different climactic, pivotal events are spread out so the series has a certain pre-planned tempo and their significance is well thought through - and a series that is really just a fantasy soap. Soaps can grab my attention for a short time, but I tire quickly. I resent being shackled to the story, I resent never seeing the end.

So anyway, my brother and sister felt differently and got into the entertainment that is fantasy serials. Through them I was introduced to the Otherland chronicles (note this: important fantasy term!), an earlier work of Williams's that really impressed me when I read it in.... well, I don't remember exactly... turn of the century sometime? (it is SO COOL to be able to write that about MY life!). The War of the Flowers is of a later date, but has the similar idea of a person/persons from our world being transported into another world, another kind of universe. Otherland is set in the near future, where we go online into a virtual universe, using avatars of ourselves to move about in a more literal version of real life - your avatar walks into the virtual shopping centre and takes things off shelves, etc. A wealthy group of individuals have created an incredibly varied and realistic virtual world, into which children are being lured (can't remember why, more on that later), causing them to become comatose in the real world. I thought it was very clever, having the fantasy part, the secondary universe, as a computer programme, and also I thought the description of the future was great - not too much difference (no hovercars), and based for the most part in Africa, thus allowing Africa to be something else than the mud-hut place of starving children.

In The War of the Flowers we meet Theo, who is too old, 30-something, to be the musician-waiting-for-a-break/delivery boy that he is. When his girlfriend miscarries, and his mother wastes away in cancer, Theo wants to reassess his life. Before he gets to do that, a Tinkerbell-sized fairy arrives and brings him through a portal to Faerie. He is wanted there by several factions, but nobody tells him why. Faerie is confusing and much violent and cruel than Theo had thought. He learns that the King and Queen died a long time ago, and that since then the seven most powerful noble families have taken control. All the other fairy species are under their thumb. To get the magic needed to fuel Faerie - magic that the King and Queen could generate by themselves - they use slave labour in factories, to suck the magic out of them. It's a not-very-thinly-veiled critique of our exploitation of the planet and fellow men, basically.

Anyway, so. Tad Williams. The man likes to write a lot of words. My sister lent me this and a pile of other books (so watch this space as I go through them - I'm on the next one in the pile now and it's another fantasy-trip-into-fairystoryland so comparisons are interesting!) and she said "well, his problem is that he's a bit wordy". And so he is. This book could EASILY have been half as long, without suffering for it. Also, if we're doing modern versions of mythology, let's just face it: Neil Gaiman does the best work. I'm not getting into the who was first debate though, they're both pretty contemporary. But Williams's violence and cruelty lack the bite that Gaiman's work has. Gaiman makes his characters more believable and true, so the reader cares more and takes it seriously. Theo is one of the most annoying characters ever. The sprite that brings him across calls him thick all the time, and she's right. Good God. He seems to exist purely to ask stupid questions so that stupid readers can get e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g. explained. I find it very depressing that Williams finds his readers so moronic. For example, we come across characters with the surname Daisy. Then some called weft-Daisy. This is not explained. After some chapters something is mentioned on the aside about fathering children on the weft side. Since we are not idiots we now understand what weft means. Theo however goes another few chapters I think before asking outright and getting the full explanation. Why? Why bog down a fairly entertaining fantasy story with this? Was this in any way a loose end? No it was not. It was detail that helped us make up an imaginary, believable secondary universe. We wouldn't understand everything if you dropped us in Beijing either - you don't have to explain!

That is just one example of many many many. This tedious lengthening of the stories just causes me to forget heaps of details. Otherland deteriorated in the last few books (I think there are four?), so I can't remember what the actual point of it all was.

Okay, this is a bit more than the book deserves. I get a little worked up, and that's because it could be so much better. And because I liked Otherland despite it all, and this I can't like. Disappointing!


li'l sis said...

Yes a wordy man is ole Tad. The fairy/sprite Applecore is really what kept me reading that one. Can't wait to see what you make of Tailchaser's Song; compared to his other books it's quite short, but it also get's wordy at times. I think he was aspiring toward a feline version of LoTR...

bani said...

Oh God. I have to admit I'm avoiding that one so far, lol. But I'll get to it! In the end.