THE LOST WAR by Justin Lee Anderson (SPFBO 6 FINALIST REVIEW)
Phase 2 of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off is drawing to a close at the end of this month! Keep track of the finalists’ scoreboard here.
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War is a common motif in fantasy.
Anna Stephens and Anna Smith-Spark’s debut trilogies are full of continent convulsing conflict, as is another SPFBO finalist – The Fall of Erlon.
However, a bit like fairy tales that end with couples married and assured of living happily ever after, tales of war that end in peace miss out on the ongoing business of making the ‘ever after’ bit work.
Richard III declares as much in his opening monologue ‘Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York’: Peace, like a wedding, is a beginning not an ending.
So, fair play to Justin Lee Anderson for starting his tale where many would end theirs – with the final battle won and ‘the bruised arms hung up for monuments.’ Read on to see what our reviewers made of Anderson’s alternative vision of a ‘weak piping time of peace.’
The Lost War
Justin Lee Anderson
The war is over, but something is rotten in the state of Eidyn.
With a ragged peace in place, demons burn farmlands, violent Reivers roam the wilds and plague has spread beyond the Black Meadows. The country is on its knees.
In a society that fears and shuns him, Aranok is the first magically-skilled draoidh to be named King’s Envoy.
Now, charged with restoring an exiled foreign queen to her throne, he leads a group of strangers across the ravaged country. But at every step, a new mystery complicates their mission.
As bodies drop around them, new threats emerge and lies are revealed, can Aranok bring his companions together and uncover the conspiracy that threatens the kingdom?
Beth: As ever, Nils and I found ourselves comparing the first cover with this new one. Personally, although it may be a little more generic, I much prefer the new one. It’s more eye-catching, the detail is clearer, and I feel it reflects the story better.
I thought the production value was quite good; there’s a very good map, I particularly loved the details of each town etc. I found myself jumping back to it for reference quite often.
Nils: Beth I missed the map entirely! I didn’t know there was one! My Kindle jumped straight to chapter one when I opened the book!
Beth: Oh no Nils! How did you find it without a map? Was it easy to keep track of where they were going without it?
Nils: It was a bit hard to be honest, but completely my fault. I should have checked!
Theo: I’m assuming the red cover is the old one and the darker cover is the new one? Certainly I preferred the not-red one.
Beth: Sorry Theo, the red one is the new one!
Nils: I agree with Beth, the new cover is striking, that red background and the typography certainly catches the eye, yet I can’t help but prefer the previous cover. I find this new one to be extremely similar to Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing as that’s a lovely cover, but the similarities are a bit too much for my personal liking. I prefer the dark ominous scene depicted on the first cover, which I feel in hindsight reflects the story better.
Beth: It’s the hooded figure isn’t it? There’s something about fantasy covers and cloaked/hooded figures!
Theo: Like Nils, I didn’t realise there was a map, Kindles tend to skip straight to the text I think. I did find it a little hard to work out the geography and I was a bit surprised that when I did refer to the map it didn’t feel as helpful as I’d expected, in terms of pinning down journeys. The characters seemed to be flying about all over the place (in one case literally!)
Beth: Right, in terms of the story itself. This is one of those books that I’m going to try and tread carefully with, as the plot hinges on something quite major. However, this major thing happens very late in the story, and I was only really able to appreciate the story after it happened.
Nils: I so agree with you, that ending really did make you view the whole book differently afterwards.
Theo: Oh yes, definitely a big and very unusual (unique?!) twist. It certainly addressed some of my concerns about what appeared to be plot illogicalities. However, as Nils mentioned to me, the twist comes so late it’s almost a jarring kink that sets up a second book. Other stories with remarkable premises (like the Matrix say) open up the premise early enough that you can enjoy exploring the consequences and feel the story has reached a conclusion.
Beth: In terms of the prose though, I’m sorry to say my initial impression wasn’t favourable. There’s a fight right at the start, and it felt contrived as an opportunity to show off our new protagonists. It felt a little heavy-handed in its execution. The narrative hops between various perspectives but far too frequently and I’d question whether some points of view were really necessary, for example the smith who is only present for half the story anyway. It wasn’t always clear whose perspective we were in, until specifically told, and some perspectives shared storylines – for example Aranok and Allandria – and I found myself questioning why we needed to be present in a different perspective.
In terms of the prose, there were a couple of lines that jarred. The ‘crippled idiot’ the messenger met at the gate was a particularly bad one. The somewhat cliched ‘she was beautiful despite her age’ followed by the more problematic ‘her dark colouring made her look exotic’. Issues that are most likely completely unintentional but which still really struck me. Again, as I’ve said before, editors are of course not available to everyone, but I do think this book could benefit from one.
I’d been really looking forward to this one as I’d heard very good things about it, and so it was the first of the finalists I picked up. But unfortunately, it took a while to grab me; it wasn’t until the 30% mark that I began to feel actually interested in the story and the mystery building.
Nils: We do have to tread carefully when talking about the story itself as there is a major event towards the end which is a complete game-changer, and it’s oh so cleverly done, so I wouldn’t want to spoil that for anyone.
However, as for the prose, well, I too feel it needed some thorough editing. My initial impression during the opening chapters was; ‘‘why do all the characters sound the same?’’ I found it very hard to distinguish who was who, they all felt flat with very little personality to them, and I felt each character’s voice needed to be more nuanced. We switch between character’s perspectives far too often, with an omnipresent narration, which makes for a jarring experience, and although some of this does make sense by the end, it nonetheless put me off right at the start.
Beth has also excellently pointed out the phrases such as ‘crippled idiot’ and cliched references to beauty and skin colour, which irked me too. I am myself physically disabled, I also have brown skin, and I’m female, and I’m pretty much tired of seeing these kinds of cliched remarks still being used. I’m not singling Anderson out here, I’m certain it’s unintentional as he does try really hard to challenge other prejudiced attitudes particularly those surrounding sexuality, but it would be nice if authors in general could keep in mind what could potentially be offensive. There was also this line which made my eyes roll – ‘Allandria didn’t look like a mum.’ I’d question what makes a woman look like a mum? Women come from all walks of life, mothers are not to be stereotyped.
I also felt the prose had a tendency to over explain with far too much exposition that wasn’t necessarily needed. For example, Anderson would repeatedly mention how skilled Aranok was in his Draoidh abilities, or how skilled Alliandre was with a bow, and how selfless Samily was, yet once we reached around 40% into the novel he’d already shown us these qualities so we didn’t need to then be constantly told.
Having said that, for me it was after 40% where my interest peaked a lot. Beth and I once again were messaging each other and were both very curious as to what was behind all the mystery of the plot and once we began shooting theories back and forth at each other, I found myself thoroughly invested to discover exactly what was going on.
Theo: I also found the story strengthened after about the 30% mark. I also felt an irritation at the references to “attractive older woman” and “exotic darker colouring.”
As Nils pointed out, despite these annoyances, Anderson does maintain a pleasing balance of genders with many leading female characters full of agency. Samily was my favourite.
So the irksome lines and references (eg Glorbad looking as if he was “about to climax” during a healing process) were more a matter of occasional carelessness than persistent flaw.
Julia: I for one thoroughly enjoyed The Lost War. I fully agree that the start was the weakest part, but mostly because it felt a bit generic at first. As soon as the plot started to show and the character introduction was out of the way, I was quickly sucked into the book and breezed through it in no time. I can’t say I consciously noticed bad editing anywhere.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
Beth: I’m not sure how I feel about the characters… It took me a very long time to begin to feel a connection to them. Despite the frequent philosophising, Samily was possibly my favourite character. Her voice was one of the more distinctive ones, and I particularly liked her growth.
Nils: You’re right there, Samily’s voice was the easiest one to recognise. She was quite quirky at times I felt.
Theo: Samily was my favourite too, although her holy innocence was perhaps a little overplayed and the other women characters’ bids to explain worldly matters to her then felt clumsy.
Beth: I did struggle with the female characters, as for the most part it felt like they didn’t really have stories of their own, and instead were entirely influenced and affected by the men they were with. This is where discussing this book gets tricky, as looking back I can’t decide if this was deliberate or not. Looking at female characters outside of our core group of perspective protagonists, one could argue that they had their agency and were not entirely influenced by the men around them, therefore there is a conscious distinction being made for a specific reason, and if this is the case then it’s very clever on Anderson’s part to have taken this into consideration.
Nils: I unfortunately struggled a lot with the characters. As I mentioned before, most of them didn’t feel very distinct, and because of that I couldn’t connect with them for a very long time, which in turn made me fail to care about them.
Beth: I had the same problem Nils, but by the end I couldn’t decide if they’d deliberately been kept vague or not! This book has really messed with my head…
Nils: Mine too!
However, I did like one character – Vastin, a young orphaned boy. I felt like there was an interesting coming of age narrative arc for him, and I was invested in discovering how he would grow.
I actually also thought he’d become more vital to the plot, so I was really disappointed when he dropped out of the second half of the book and I was left wondering what the point of his character was.
Beth: Same here Nils! I didn’t really warm to him like you did, but I did wonder why he even needed to be in the story. I couldn’t really see how he progressed the plot – the only thing I can think of is that maybe he’s an early set-up for a story line in a later book.
Nils: Perhaps yeah, because it felt like Anderson was definitely building him up for a bigger purpose…
Theo: Yes, Vastin is definitely the “hero who never was”, or at least “wasn’t yet.” The final plot twist is such a head-melter that I found I had to rethink whole sections of the plot and re-examine some character motivations. At the time I didn’t get so much of a sense of the principle female characters as lacking agency, so much as all characters revolving around and being subservient to Aranok who at times felt like a bit of a Marty Sue. However, I think I do get Beth’s point.
Beth: My very vague, desperately trying-not-to-give-away-anything point?
Theo: Anderson acknowledges a few friends for allowing him to use their characters and at the times the story does have the feel of the novelised sequel to a DND campaign, even down to the characters sharing backstories perhaps a little more openly than we might expect. The core six characters do feel like three pairs played by three sets of DND playing partners. Perhaps what we are seeing in the core trio of relationships is simply the way they were originally played by the people who created those characters?
Julia: At times, and especially early in the book the characters felt a bit generic and predictable to me. I did like them well enough to happily keep reading, and was interested in what would happen to them next, but a bit more depth to them would have been appreciated. Once we got to know them, they were exactly my cup of tea, and their humour worked well for me. At times they are a bit too good and naïve, but not so much that it would have bothered me.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
Beth: Similarly to what I just said about the characters, there were aspects of the plot that frustrated me for the majority of the book, which then by the end I was able to understand better. Early on in the story, I wrote in my notes that there’s a sense of disconnect; we’re told about all these various things that are happening, but I felt confused as to why they were happening, and that perhaps I’d missed something in the reading. At the 17% mark, it was reminding me somewhat of Kazuo Ishiguru’s The Buried Giant; my issue was that I could not work out if the disconnect was intended or not…
I think the pacing is certainly something that can be tightened. There were a number of moments I felt slowed the pace unnecessarily; one too many arguments about God, a shopping trip which seemed to serve little purpose, exposition via dialogue, and an info-dump run down of the magic system at a very late point in the book (when we’d already pieced together much of the information for ourselves); a digression into the university system in the middle of what had been a tense scene…
Nils: Yep, these scenes grated on me too, they just felt like unnecessary fillers, didn’t they?
Beth: They really did!
Julia: I enjoyed the plot. It felt a bit like a welcome home coming to the classical fantasy, and yet the prose and pacing for me was modern enough to make it an easy, fluent and quick read! Again, especially the start of the book did feel a bit generic, but I soon got past that and was following along our group of people eager to find out the mystery that I saw hiding on the other side of the pages.
Beth: I felt there were aspects of the plot which often felt contrived and convenient, but conversely there were moments which simply didn’t seem to make sense. For example the character who had some form of curse that meant people couldn’t stand to look at her – but this was hereditary. Her parents and grandparents had it, and yet somehow procreated… Or when Aranok uses his magic to create a protective wall, then curses himself for cutting off their exit – presumably forgetting he put the wall there with magic and can just as easily therefore take the wall down?
These are minor little annoyances that I think I felt all the more because the story has so much potential; I wanted so much to immerse myself in it but these little moments kept throwing me out again.
Theo: Good point about the character with the hereditary curse of repulsion, Beth. And it did just seem a bit too convenient. I think the prose could have been tighter. My own frustration was when the characters arrived at a location and were immediately alerted to the presence of a suspicious person that the plot screamed out – you need to see this person right NOW – and then they took every delay and digression before turning to interrogate this person, by which time of course…
At times I did wonder about the plot structure which seemed both narratively and geographically to wander about a lot. It was as if the characters were constantly seeking out side quests in a way that felt sort of random, but then maybe that was how the rottenness at the heart of the kingdom had to be exposed.
Beth: And this is where we come back to the head-melting Theo!
When you look back at the plot from the end point though, there’s no denying this is an excellent story. It’s a very clever story, with a mystery that kept me guessing and theorising throughout, and was certainly different to anything I’ve read before.
Nils: Firstly, after finishing the book, I have to praise Anderson for being a clever little trickster because I thoroughly loved how so much just fell into place at the end. It was like a lightbulb-suddenly-turning-on kind of moment, and even after finishing the book I was remembering parts thinking “Oh, so that’s what that meant!”.
I think it’s unfortunate that I can only appreciate the book after finishing it though, because whilst reading I found myself annoyed and frustrated by so much of the plot as very little seemed to make sense to me. I question whether I would have had the patience to continue were it not for the fact that I was reading this for the SPFBO and because I was sharing discussions with Beth. I’m so glad I did continue though.
Personally I feel certain scenes or events would have worked better had they happened much earlier on and then part of the second half of the book could have dealt with the fallout from those events, but I can’t really go into detail about that because I’d hate to potentially give spoilers.
Beth: I’m with you on this Nils!
Nils: Great minds!!
As with the prose, I feel the plot could have done with some more thorough editing too. As I mentioned, there were many scenes which felt like fillers. For example characters would pointlessly argue, usually before or during an intense action scene, dialogue would be used to info-dump, and there was a lot of repetition.
Yet despite my negative comments here, I still believe Anderson has created a brilliant novel, I just think it could use some refinement.
Theo: I must admit I was thinking, “yeah this dead character’s going to turn out not to be dead” or some such interesting but not particularly original twist. But I was wrong and the actual final revelation is impressive and the reveal is not without its moments of humour. However, it does challenge not just the characters’ understanding of what’s been going on, but also the readers’. Like Nils, I would have liked the kink in the plot to have come earlier so that we could enjoy how some of its ramifications played out. As it was, it felt a bit like the book just turned through ninety degrees and then immediately stopped – but hey I suppose that’s why we have sequels and series.
The pragmatic side of me is trying to work out some of the implications and complications of Anderson’s big reveal. There’s a kind of Schrodinger’s cat duality to the out-turn of events in the cleverness of Anderson’s idea and his villain.
Julia: The big twist in the end was fully unexpected and I quite enjoyed it. There were enough hints and little moments that made you aware something was coming, but I quite loved the way it was handled!
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
Beth: I did find myself falling utterly in love with the world building! This is a society which felt entirely real; better yet, which was clearly real to Anderson. It had a depth and nuance to its towns, regions, and traditions, that pointed to a world thoroughly understood by its maker.
There were moments where the characters themselves fit so well within their surroundings, where they felt like they were truly living within their world – for example a moment towards the end of the book with Allandria as she reflects on a particular fountain – that I felt like there was more to the story that I hadn’t read. Like for the briefest moment, there were previous books in this series I’d missed – or like she had a life outside these pages.
I’d have loved the magic system to have a little more confinement; it sometimes strayed into the realm of not-having-any-rules for convenience sake. Sometimes there was structure, in terms of characters having specific skills; but whether there were restrictions on these skills seemed to fluctuate. Despite that, I did find it a very interesting magic system, the variety of skills apparent, and the possibilities entertained by them.
Nils: Anderson has created a world full of Draoidhs (magic users), demons, knights, zombie-like creatures, even a religious order called The White Thorns, and a land ravaged by war. There is magic and mayhem in abundance, and the whole concept of it is fascinating and entertaining.
Julia: For me the world building worked really well. I was easily immersed in the story and didn’t even notice I was reading, instead I was right inside the pages with the characters. I enjoyed the mix of soft magic system that left some mystery and yet a deep löre that was obviously behind it all. I don’t necessarily have to know all the little tidbits about a world, as long as the scene is solid and it feels like it’s not just a movie backdrop. And Lost War did this beautifully in my eyes. Not too little and not too much.
Nils: However, there were certainly aspects which again I believe needed to be refined for me to really become immersed into this world. For example it isn’t until around 60% into the novel until we get some more details on how Draoidh magic actually works, how the user can control the amount of energy consumed when wielding the power, and we see a few more Draoidhs with different abilities.
Yet, that’s a long way into the novel to wait for it, and personally I like magic systems to have more depth and exploration than what we get here. Beth makes a valid point, the magic system lacks limitations and therefore it truly does become a convenient plot device. Some examples which frustrated me were (Potential spoilers here); Aranok our Draoidh who uses Earth powers, seems to be able to use several elements such as wind and fire, and not just one. We then see he is able to store the sun’s energy into a pendant which he suddenly uses when they need daylight to fight against a group of insect-like demons, whereas previously we didn’t even know he could have the ability to use inanimate objects to wield his powers. There’s also a point where he uses wind to catapult himself, almost like flying, out of a fight against a horde of undead, into the safety of a house. It felt far too convenient because previously he’d never used this ability even when it would have come in handy. Then there was a character who could alter time to change the past. There didn’t seem to be any consequences to her altering the timeline — If you’ve watched Back to the Future you’ll know there are always repercussions! — which again made said character convenient to have around at just the right time.
I also found myself annoyed by all the passages where the characters debated religion and their belief in god. I failed to see what the point of the religion was in this book? In a lot of fantasy books I’ve read, religion is often used as an integral part of the world, various cultures are portrayed with their unique set of beliefs and customs, we learn about their gods and their history, and how and why it has shaped the world, these details enrich the story and make the world feel more realised. Whereas Anderson tends not to flesh out the religion – characters either believe in god or they don’t. We don’t really learn anything about this ‘God’ – is this a religion based on Christianity? I couldn’t see why there was such an emphasis on religion when we know so little about it.
Beth: This is another one of those aspects though that might have been influenced by the twist? How much are we able to lay at the feet of the twist and how much at the feet of the author?
Nils: I realise again that I sound very negative, but overall I really do like this world, I find myself wanting to know more about it that’s all, to delve that bit deeper and I’m still thinking about it now, even though I’ve finished the book, so it’s clearly made an impact on me.
Theo: I think all authors tend to proselytise a bit. The religious discussions didn’t grate too much on me in that Aranok and Samily’s positions reflect an interesting debate on the nature of faith and goodness, but they did perhaps labour the point. Much as I liked Samily, Anderson did invest her with a kind of Joan of Arc saintliness -a perfection which the other characters are telling us about.
“Even in grief, Samily’s first thoughts were for others. The girl was unique. Nirea had never seen compassion like it.”
Some of the oblique references to more earthy preoccupations did also feel a bit unnecessary – for example when Nirea is having a conversation with Samily about sex and asks “Not even, you know… by yourself.”
Nils: I agree Theo, this was completely unnecessary.
Beth: It came across weirdly pressurising? I felt sorry for Samily that Nirea didn’t seem able to just accept that Samily did not have that inclination.
Theo: I found the world as a whole was a comfortable enough milieu to settle into. Magic wielding wizards (draiodhs) facing residual prejudice in a war torn world having previously been shunned and outlawed for their ability – it feels comfortably familiar rather than sparklingly original. That said, Anderson does bend the traditional ideas of magic in a couple of quite interesting new ways.
Julia: I love the magic in this, with different talents for air, or fire, or illusions… It’s obviously not a new idea, but I haven’t read it in newer books, so it didn’t feel tropey anymore. I especially loved the Draoidh!
Quotations that resonated with you
Beth: For the most part this isn’t a prosaic book, but I did make a note of this particular line:
“The deep dark black was lit up with a dancing array of lights, twinkling down on her. It felt like a vast ocean. She wanted to dive in and swim amongst the beautiful little fires.”
I did also rather like Samily’s view on enemies, blame, and responsibility:
“That man… was your enemy.”
Samily stepped back onto the road. The soldier was so full of anger.
“He was not my enemy,” she said calmly. “He only believed me his enemy.”
Theo: I agree with that quote, Beth. It’s a good contemporary point that Anderson makes well through Samily
“For some reason,” she said, “this man’s master, whoever they may be, saw some advantage in convincing him that the people of Eidyn were his enemies. That they were ‘other’ than he. Less worthy of life… that person, the one who made us this man’s enemy – they bear the responsibility.”
And Samily again
“Compliment my skill, my strength, my sword even – but not my face. It is an accident of birth, a gift from parents I never knew. I have no claim to it and I take no pride in it.”
Beth: So, my review hasn’t sounded very favourable, has it? But do you know what – I’ve not been able to stop thinking about this book. There’s been a number of moments since finishing it where I’ve had the urge to pick it up, forgetting that I’ve finished it and there’s nothing left to read. It’s given me a book hangover. I sort of wish the climax had come a lot sooner, so there was less of the book to confuse me, and more of the story and resolution after in which I could appreciate how clever Anderson had been. As it is, I almost have this feeling of guilt? That there were so many aspects that annoyed me to later make complete sense. The exploration of the notion that it’s the winner of the war who writes the history was utterly brilliant.
Theo: Oh, yes Beth a good point about the different ways to win and lose a war. I’m curious how the story will move on because, besides all the earth wind and fire kind of traditional magic, Anderson’s draoidh do include two new types of magic user that I’ve never seen in any players’ handbook, and that gives the story legs to go on. I do worry that Anderson has still left a hell of a lot of explaining to do, both to characters and readers about what has been going on, never mind navigating them all to a satisfactory conclusion.
Nils: I truly believe Anderson has quite a special story here, the ending has to be one of the most innovative ones I’ve read in a long while.
I also wish that the climax could have come sooner, because like Beth said, it took a long while to appreciate how clever this novel is. In my opinion, I’d love to see this get an extra round of edits, to see it delve deeper into aspects like characterisation and world building, and to see some further refinements, because The Lost War has such fantastic potential.
Julia: While I would have wanted a tiny bit more uniqueness and more depth early on, this was an utterly enjoyable read. I breezed through the book in no time, and I was well entertained all the way through! Characters I cared for, action, friendships, a nice quest, magic, plenty of things to explore, a good mystery, an exceptional well working twist, fluent prose – I am really happy with this book.
(to nearest half mark)
Placed 4th in the Hive’s Finalist List.