A Critique of ‘The Lost War’ by Justin Lee Anderson

Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own. I’m writing this review as an author critiquing another author’s book, in an attempt to improve my own writing and editing skills.

And when is say spoilers, I mean SPOILERS! I can’t talk about this book properly without going into the spoilers. One of this book’s main selling points are hidden behind them, so I gotta talk about them.


BIASES STATED

To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.

I’ll come right out and say it: I did not like the act of reading most of this book. THIS IS NOT A BAD BOOK; it was competently written with a solid plot and consistent characters. Simply, not all books are for all people. This is a traditional Shannara/Dragonlance-esque D&D party adventure Quest Fantasy story, with a bit of a Grimdark vibe. If you look through my blog at some of my other reviews for books in this subgenre, you’ll see that I usually don’t give stellar scores to similar books.

When I was younger, I was a fan of books in that subgenre; I’m no longer a fan. I can respect that this book is competently written, even though my pre-existing bias against it made me not like it. If this book had not won the SPFBO, I would have quit at about the 1/3 mark.

After I got bored, I switched to audiobook. This was a very good idea; the audiobook was very good, increasing my enjoyment of the book by a significant amount.


WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE?

  • Quest Party Fantasy
  • Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy
  • Dark Fantasy, Grimdark
  • Mindscrew Fantasy
  • Traditional Quest Fantasy tropes played fairly straight…
  • Until there’s a twist. Then it gets weird.
  • Adult, but readers over 16 Years old could read it,

READER’S EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ FUN FACTOR

Going back to my ‘biases’ section above, I must restate that I am not in this book’s targeted market for intended readers. This book plays it’s Quest Party Fantasy tropes fairly straight, with upstanding paladins and God-skeptical wizards, confident pirates and dutiful soldiers. I haven’t loved books of this type in years. In this case, my dislike of this book isn’t the fault of the book’s, it’s mine.

I started reading this in the ebook format, and didn’t love it. I switched to the audiobook format, and the audiobook narrator was so good, it dramatically increased my enjoyment of the novel. He really brought the Celtic pronunciations to life.

Ebook Score: (2.5/5 Stars)

Audiobook Score: (3/5 Stars)

(3 stars is what I try to give most books. It is the baseline of ‘I had a good time reading this, and other people would generally enjoy it too, with no reservations.’)

(5 Stars= Perfect, 4=Great, 3=Good/Average, 2=Fun but Flawed, 1=Not Recommended)


SIMILAR BOOKS

  • Shannara
  • Dragonlance
  • Riyria (Quest Fantasy)
  • Kingdom of Liars (The Twist)
  • Demon Cycle (There are monsters around every corner.)

CONCEPT AND EXECUTION

This book’s concept is ‘A Traditional Quest Fantasy novel, where a king sends a team of ragtag ruffians to stop an apocalypse of zombies, demons, raiders, bug monsters, and another type of zombies, in what is surely a suicide mission… Until it’s revealed that the king has mind control powers which he used to mind control the ruffians and erase their identities. The king is the true evil antagonist, sending the ‘heroes’ on this suicide mission to deliberately get them killed because they were his enemies.’

That’s a really dope concept. Sadly, in my view, it was not as well executed upon as it could have been. To be clear, I felt this book was popcorn fun for the first 80% of it’s pagetime. It was worth reading. But the actually spicy bits felt too back-loaded for me, with most of the ‘twist’ occurring in the final 20%. That spice needed to be throughout the entire novel, instead of just rear-loaded.

I’ve recently been listening to some writing lectures by Brandon Sanderson, and one thing he emphasized upon is the importance of setting reader expectations. As an example, he cited a book one of his friends wrote back in the day. That book began as a traditional Terry Brooks-style Quest Fantasy novel (you know the type: Tolkein inspired, where a group sets off on a quest to defeat a Big Bad). But 3/4s of the the way through the unnamed novel, that novel inverted the tropes and it became something entirely different. Ultimately, that book didn’t find an audience and sell well.

Sanderson cited that unnamed book as an example of what NOT to do. Why? Readers who want inverted tropes, want inverted tropes from the very beginning; readers who want tropes played straight, want their tropes played straight until the very end. By catering to both, you satisfy neither.

For me, ‘The Lost War’ fell into the same trap as that nameless book Sanderson cited. ‘The Lost War’ is a fairly bog-standard Grimdark Quest Fantasy before the twist. There are hints and foreshadowing that something is wrong and a twist is coming, but those hints weren’t enough to shake up genre expectations. As stated, I don’t like Quest Fantasy novels; if I hadn’t read that there was a MAJOR twist coming in reviews I read of this book, I would have given up at about the 1/3 mark just because I don’t like this subgenre.

The author played his cards too close to his chest for my taste. If I were this book’s editor, I would tell the author to either:

  • include flashbacks, dreams and repressed memories earlier in the story, where the mind-controlled characters occasionally remember their past lives.
    • These flashbacks would do a lot to re-frame genre expectations for the reader, helping clue them in that something is not right.
  • or employ a dual narrative of two timelines, where two different Questing Parties go on two different adventures in seeming parallel, where one party is Good and the other Evil. Then at the end of the book reveal the twist of mind control and that the characters were the same people all along, but had forgotten their past evil lives.
    • I’m thinking of something like the technique used in Ann Leckie’s ‘Ancillary Justice,’
  • or at the bare minimum, the author could have reorganized some of the scenes, so some of the later revelations occurred earlier.
    • In particular, I think that the ‘poisoned chalices’ scenes could have been moved to the first 25% of the book.
    • And I think the author needed to foreshadow mind control very early, very explicitly. It was WAY too subtle. The author needed to say early on something like ‘Not only do you have to deal with demons, zombies, and cursed people, but mind control exists and someone is leaking secrets to the enemy. Try to figure out who amongst the main cast is a pawn of the enemy!’

CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:

The characters in this are… uh… a thing.

SPOILER CITY! BEGONE IF THY WANT TO BE UNSPOILT!

For most of the book they’re portrayed fairly straight along genre conventions: the morally upstanding, yet naïve paladin; the atheist wizard with a chip on his shoulder, but ultimately good intensions; the emotionally supportive love interest/archer; the loyal soldier; the reformed pirate queen; the king trying desperately to hold his nation together after a terrible war… you get the idea.

But just because they follow genre conventions doesn’t make them bad.

The author does a pretty good job of giving them breadth and depth despite how they obey conventions, and making the quarrelling between them work… mostly. (Some of the character interactions in between them are a bit clunky). The characters were above average for the subgenre of Quest Fantasy. In particular, I felt that the romance between Aranok and Allandria felt authentic. I don’t often say this, but the romantic subplot was nice to read. Allandria wasn’t just a token love interest, and I liked that.

These characters are a fully functional Questing Party, straight out of a well-written D&D inspired adventure. These are people who I can see reading a solid trilogy of their adventures.

And then the twist happens, revealing that their personalities are implanted memories in their heads. The wizard didn’t always have good intensions, the Good King isn’t a good person, the Dark Lord is actually kinda chill, and the romance which I liked is fake. This twist sets aside all that early characterization, resetting the book’s characterization to square 1… only we’re 90% of the way through the book so there’s not enough time for another set of character arcs. We get brand new characters, and the book ends.

I mean… that’s a choice.

I’m not even sure it’s a bad choice. I’ve just never read any book like this before, so I don’t know how to judge it. This twist feels like the veil is ripped from our eyes. Now just being honest with you, I personally had no idea that this veil was there in the first place, so when the veil was ripped away it baffled me as a reader with how bonkers a twist it is. And once the veil is gone, the book ends with not enough time to fully comprehend the implications.

I don’t think the author did enough of the ground work to pull off this twist. I liked the twist, to be clear. But it was really late in the book- the twist replaces the genre-standard ‘Epic Final Battle.’ And while there was a lot of foreshadowing for a coming twist, none of it was specific enough that I was able to anticipate the nature of the twist. I think the twist should have come at about the midpoint climax- perhaps having the characters remember SOME of their past memories, but not all of them- and then there would be another memory reveal at the end of the book too to cap off the story.


PACING AND STRUCTURE

One person’s quick pacing is another person’s slow pacing. If you enjoy Quest Party Fantasy, you’ll probably find this book quickly paced. If you don’t, you’ll probably get bored. I’m in the latter camp, but my personal taste doesn’t matter.

I will say that I felt the author dwelt in the weeds on seemingly unimportant side issues a little too often, for a little too long. Did we really need page after page discussing tutoring the protagonist’s niece? Or debating the ethics of banning books? Or the nature of whether God is good? Or the ethics of wartime taxation upon a starving populace? Sometimes these tangents wove back into the plot, or helped flesh out characterization. Other times they felt self indulgent and needed to be trimmed down.

Structurally, this book feels a bit hard to break down. Below is a breakdown of all the important plotpoints, as I see them.

Act 1/Introduction

  • Blacksmith intro
  • Talking to king

Act 2

  • Thakhati
  • Messenger killed
  • Demon, and meeting the Thorn+monk
  • Blackened
  • University city

Act 3

  • Splitting up
  • The Abandoned Castle
  • The Poisonous Castle
  • Time Travel
  • Meeting Mynygogg

Act 4/Epilogue

  • The Reveal

Acts 1 & 4 are both small and plot-lite, while acts 2 & 3 are large and plot-heavy. This has a certain symmetry to it. Even so, the majority of the book’s reveals feel heavily skewed to the second half of the book- especially act 4.


PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION

This is a VERY plot focused novel; if you read this book, you read it for the plot. The characters aren’t bad; I liked them most of the time, as they had good weight to them. But this book’s main selling point is it’s plot and it’s twists. And that’s where I had trouble with this book.

As stated, I don’t like stereotypical ‘Quest Party goes fight Big Bad’ fiction all that much. The author started the book playing that plot stereotype straight in the quest to defeat Mynygogg… only to subvert expectations by the very end. Except that the author subverted them in such a way promising that book 2 will be another stereotypical ‘Quest Party goes fight Big Bad’ story, only more Grimdark.

This is a conspiracy book where all the secrets were revealed at the very end; other conspiracy books I’ve read sprinkle the secret reveals throughout the novel to keep the book. Why spread out the reveals? By spreading out the reveals, you keep the tension hot by regularly revealing secrets (aka plotpoints), and using the narrative propulsion created by a secret reveal to excite the reader to keep reading to discover the next secret. Putting all those reveals at the end of a book functions as a cliffhanger, because the book ends in a state of unresolved high tension.

So basically, I was a bit bored for most of this book because the tension was low. Then at the end of this book we got a cliffhanger with high tension. I now want to read more, because my emotional investment in this story is in an unresolved state of high tension. This is a textbook case of how a writer properly writes a cliffhanger. Writing is the art of emotional manipulation, and cliffhangers are narrative tool in that manipulative toolbox. I respect the author for his skill in implementing this narrative technique to maximize reader investment…

But for all my respect, I don’t personally enjoy cliffhangers in books I read. Having a high-tension ending in no way makes up for low-tension book. If a series needs a cliffhanger for a reader to read more than one book in the series, is the series good enough on a qualitative level to keep reading?

The book’s stakes were a big ??? for me. The book had as it’s stated goal ‘Go save the Queen.’ But no one took that goal very seriously. They half-assed that quest, until they abandoned that quest. After that, I didn’t know what I should think stakes-wise. Was it important to go save the queen? What was behind the Thakhati? Why are the Blackened moving? Where are the demons and zombies coming from? The more unanswered questions we got, the more baffled I became. We got some answers eventually, but those answers were more speculation than anything else.

The narrative never explained what would happen if the monsters won. Were the monsters even trying to win? What was the goal of the Hellfire Club? Destroying the countryside? What was the motive of any of the unexplained evil things going on? The antagonists were a big ??? to me, and that’s bad for the stakes and tension, at least for me.


AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)

The author’s voice was clear to understand, but occasionally clunky. I’d compare it to some of Sanderson’s occasional clunkiness- if you can read Sanderson, you can read this.

The book had a theme of debating the existence of God… which never went anywhere? Maybe future books will discuss the topic.


SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY

I thoroughly enjoyed the Gaelic worldbuilding employed by the author. The author pretty much lifted Scottish Gaelic whole cloth and used it as the ‘magical language’ of his setting. I enjoyed using Google Translate while reading this book to figure out what the different aspects of the setting were about. The whole Gaelic angle made this book feel approximately equivalent to Late Roman/Early Christian Britannia, where the Church and the old ways mingled, sometimes to both benefit, sometimes with friction. It was almost Arthurian at points.

The magic was a mix of X-Men like superpowers, mixed with Hermetic Mysticism. Individuals can have a single great supernatural power, but there is also a system where a person can use incantations and curses to cause effect in the world as well.


AUDIOBOOK NOTES

I really loved the audiobook. The narrator is Euan Morton, whose Scottish accent really brought a vitality and authenticity to the novel. I started reading the ebook version of this book, and didn’t love it. When I switched to audiobook I became enthralled.


LESSONS LEARNED

  • Get a good audiobook narrator. I was so-so on the ebook version of this book, but the audiobook brought the plot and characters to life.
  • If you’re going to subvert genre expectations with your book, start subverting them early so you don’t disappoint readers by making promises which you don’t ultimately fulfill.
  • Don’t rely on cliffhangers to make your book good.

SUMMARY

I whined a lot in this review, but I had fun reading this. I think I’ll read more in this series someday. Let that be the summary of this review for you: this book is worth reading, especially if you’re into Quest Fantasy. If you’re not into Quest Fantasy, just be warned that it’s a slog until the final 20%.


Goodreads


Did you like this critique/review? Here are some more:

  1. A Critique of ‘Gunmetal Gods’ by Zamil Akhtar
  2. A Critique of ‘Absynthe’ by Brendan P. Bellencourt (AKA Bradley P. Beaulieu)
  3. Studying ‘The Hallowed Hunt’ by Lois McMaster Bujold
  4. A Review of ‘Blood of the Chosen’ by Django Wexler
  5. A Critique of ‘Cordelia’s Honor’ by Lois McMaster Bujold
  6. A Study of ‘Dragon Mage’ by M. L. Spencer

And The Rest of My In Depth Reviews

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