True story: Once upon a time, there was a girl who was about to embark upon a journey. Sitting in the airport departure lounge, waiting for her boarding call, she idly pondered the books nestling in her suitcase. There were nine of them, nine little (or in certain cases not-so-little) worlds of possibility, just waiting to be devoured during a month of long, stiflingly-hot North African afternoons. Abruptly, disquiet filled the girl. Nine. A month. What if... nine proved insufficient? What if... she ran out of books to read before her return home? She had already reconnoitred the Tunisian bookshop scene, and the prospects had not been inspiring. Was she ready, truly ready, for such desperate measures as subjecting herself to Harry Potter in French?
The boarding call came, and our heroine joined the line at the gate. But still she could not rest.
There was only one thing for it.
She legged it back to Waterstones, and grabbed a huge, pretty fantasy tome. Just in case. ;-)
The reserve book in question was The War of the Flowers by Tad Williams, and I did make it back to the gate in time to board (it strikes me this would be a better story if they'd Final Call-ed me out the bookshop, but alas for my sense of drama this wasn't the case; a few years down the line, however, when the tale has grown in the telling, that'll doubtless be what happened). As it turned out, though, I didn't need it - I finished book #9, Michelle West's Hunter's Death, somewhere over southern England on my connecting flight home. So it duly joined the ranks of my Books To Read shelves, where it remained until its turn arrived.
It also turns out, of course, that my instincts were entirely correct; this would have been the perfect book to eat up a few days' worth of Tunisian humidity. Stretched out over a few weeks' reading time, its appeal is much diminished. I knew this was likely when I bought it. While I thoroughly enjoyed parts of Williams' VR-fantasy Otherland series (specifically, volumes 1 and 3), his high-fantasy saga Memory, Sorrow and Thorn did very little for me. Williams is a perfectly engaging writer, who clearly loves every atom of his worlds, and has a deep affection for the genre and a reverence for its history (and a great line in evocative titles*). But these strengths seem to spiral into weaknesses all too quickly, at least for this reader: Williams takes such delight in his worlds and his ideas that he wants to explore them from every angle, long past the point of novelty. The result, all too often, is tedium where there should be wonder, and repetitive meandering where there should be pacey storytelling.
[* and some amusingly groan-inducing homage-y puns - there's even a chapter entitled "A Disturbance in the Forcing Shed" ... ]
The War of the Flowers takes place largely in the land of Faerie, which exists in parallel with our world. Contact between the two worlds has declined dramatically since the heyday of their relationship, and humans have largely forgotten that their neighbours exist - but it is still possible for mortals and fairies to cross over. After a surprisingly taut and gloomy opening section this, of course, is what our hero - failed San Francisco-based musician Theo - does (or, rather, is made to do).
It is here that Williams' flair for worldbuilding is displayed in all its glory. Theo finds himself in a Fairyland with a touch of the Mievilles, all rapid industrialisation, oppressive government and a hierarchical social structure of vast inequality. Forests are felled to make way for the expansion of the vast central City; transport from the provinces is via train (though with a neat fairyland twist, in that stations move around according to the season and the position of the stars). At the top of the social and political tree (since golden-age rulers Oberon and Titania perished during the last war with the Giants) are the great families, the Flowers. The most humanoid of the fairyfolk - compared to, say, the goblins or the ogres - they are both the aristocracy and the captains of industry, architects of governance and arbiters of fashion (having one's wings surgically removed after the Flowers' example is a sign of social status). Between them, the Flowers control all wealth and resources (including the power plants), and employ or enslave all the other races.
Naturally, the balance of power among the Flower families is a precarious one; from the opening pages, war is in the air (although, characteristically for Williams, it doesn't actually begin until halfway through the novel). Theo becomes embroiled when certain Flowers try to have him killed, and from then on the tale centres around Theo's exploits, namely,
a) staying alive (amid some creepily-effective horror moments);
b) understanding the bizarre world he's been plunged into (not aided by the fact that he's possibly the slowest-on-the-uptake character to infuriate me in years), aka reams of exposition;
c) arguing with the Sidekick (the fun wee sprite Applecore, who gets all the best lines; in response to Theo's gaffe about believing she isn't real: "If you cut me, do I not bleed? If you piss me off, will I not kick you up the arse?");
d) Get The Girl; and
e) discovering his obligatory fantasy Destiny.
Repeat to fade - and Williams does, too, until I began counting down the pages until the end.
Great world, shame about the plot. Authorial indulgence out of control.
From the Guardian: a new study highlights fundamental differences in reading habits between men and women (that piece gives the men's list, and a link at the bottom takes you to the women's). Deeply conventional selections, of course, but the trends are interesting - partiuclarly the fact that men appear to give up reading fiction for much of their adult life. I wonder if SFF fandom would prove an exception to this?
I'm most amused, though, by how close the men's top twenty is to my own list of books I read when I was a sixth former (almost identical, in fact, bar Twain, Joyce and Hornby). Which reminds me that I'm long overdue another re-read of 1984 (used to be my very favourite novel :-)).
Edited to add a link to a slate.com article on a related subject: The Little Men Who Love Little House.