In the first 30 pages of Tad Williams' "The War of the Flowers," the protagonist's girlfriend dumps him after suffering a nasty miscarriage, his mother dies of cancer, and he faces up to the unpleasant existential plight of being a 30-year-old rock 'n' roll singer in a band going nowhere.
Yikes. The reader can be excused for rolling his eyes. This is supposed to be fantasy, right? Tad Williams is the author of both the "Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn" sword-and-sorcery series and the "Otherland" quartet of novels, perhaps best described as fantasy cyberpunk. He definitely knows his way around the magic kingdom.
So bring on the damn goblins! The faerie magic, fellowship of heroes, and talismanic quest! Enough with the hospital beds and the dead fetuses. What about the serious malevolence, the absolute Eeh-vuhl brooding on universal domination? Who needs another tiresome batch of all-too-familiar real-life woe? I've got enough of that in my own life. Fantasy is supposed to take me somewhere else.
I should have had more faith. Our hero, chased by a spooky spirit, soon slips into another world, jampacked with water nymphs, fairy lords, ogres, sprites, pixies and a whole mess of magic. And goblins, lots of goblins. In fact, there is a whole goblin revolution, complete with a splendid set piece featuring a ferocious battle between the heroic goblins and an attack squadron of marauding dragons. Williams displays a deft hand, creating an addictive world with its own history, mythology, internal rules, and rich, intricate culture. When I found myself reading "The War of the Flowers" while standing at the stove stirring some ramen noodles, I knew I was hooked.
The world of Faerie turns out to have everything a fantasy fan could desire. But there's a delicious twist, one that elevates "The War of the Flowers" above the vast majority of sword-and-sorcery schlock swamping your local bookstore. For the world of Faerie is plagued by problems that, whoops, are plenty recognizable. Urban decay, power failures, class warfare, prejudice ... this land of make-believe is in big trouble, and there isn't going to be an easy talismanic cure. Heck, the fairy lords even have magic cellphones, which is a kind of evil I really wasn't expecting.
In other words, in this epitome of an escape genre offering, there is no way out from mundane afflictions. It would be a mean trick to play on readers if it weren't so well done. Even as he weaves his "make-believe" world, afflicted by rank bigotry, blackouts and even magic e-mail, Williams simultaneously delivers moments of grandeur and potency that fit snugly into a Tolkienesque tradition. But he does it with a modern sensibility -- imagine a Tolkien who listened to Metallica -- and he has more up his sleeve than thwarting the legions of doom. "The War of the Flowers" isn't just about magic, it's about the struggle to be human when that seems too hard.
Do we need to go into the plot? Suffice to say that the leader of the goblin revolution is a delightfully compelling character, a kind of cross between Nelson Mandela and Leon Trotsky. The evil fairy lords are appropriately nasty, the mystery of how the king and queen died in the Giant Wars several centuries earlier is acceptably intriguing, and the sidekick sprite Applecore is a sassy delight. I know I would have opted for the cosmetic surgery to bring me down to her size without a second thought.
And then there's our hero. There's a long fantasy tradition in which the hero starts off as a doofus, or a gangly kid, or suffers from some other flaws (one memorable fantasy hero was actually a leper in the "real" world). And then, after approximately 700 pages of sturm und drang, he becomes a Man, (or a Woman, or a Grown-up Elf -- you get the idea). Usually this also involves getting really good with a sword or learning to fully utilize the Force.
Theo Vilmos follows in this hackneyed tradition, but his character flaws are rooted in territory that is usually deemed too frightful to enter even for fantasy writers accustomed to dealing with evil beings who don't blink at consigning entire worlds to eternal damnation.
Theo isn't good at relationships. He doesn't connect well with others. He's also a feckless whiner who can't buckle down, who always gets by with the least amount of effort possible. As his girlfriend, who is understandably bitter that he was jamming with his band while she was losing a fetus, says to him as she gives him the heave-ho: "I can't believe how stupid I was -- like I was under some kind of spell, believing that somehow we would have this rosy little family life. But in real life you would have been just the same, doing just enough to get by, a smile, a joke, oh yeah, lots of cute stuff but nothing real. Eventually we would have broken up, and then you'd have been a weekend dad, doing the bare minimum, no plan, no organization, no commitment, take the kid out and buy her an ice cream cone, drop her back off with me afterward ... It's always the same with you. You're a grown man, Theo, but you act like a teenager."
Ouch! Who needs Eeh-vuhl when you can inspire that kind of hostility? The plight of a world where goblins and countless other species of magic beings are oppressed and exploited by imperious fairy lords pales in comparison to the plight of the modern American male: shallow, self-absorbed and emotionally crippled.
So, while readers will relish a fantasy novel that belongs in the top tier of those currently being produced, that masterfully plays with all the tropes and traditions of generations of fantasy writers, they will also become absorbed in Theo's real quest, which has nothing to do with sword wielding or inner powers or "greatness" by any commonly understood definition. His real quest is to become, basically, a good guy and a stand-up mensch.
In another subversive twist, "The War of the Flowers" turns out not to be the first volume in a multi-epic saga that may never end, or if it does, will require waiting until one's children have grown to the point where they are wondering why Dad reads so much fantasy. This is a stand-alone volume, with all loose ends wrapped up and no cliffhangers taunting the reader. Evil is defeated, duh, and Theo, one can be pretty sure, manages, thank goodness, to avoid a lifetime in psychotherapy bills. It's still highly doubtful that everyone will live happily ever after, but at least they have a fighting chance.