For Snails’ Sakes, Read this Book

A Review of ‘The War of Undoing’ by Alex Perry

Black Wood of Rannoch

Alex heads into the Black Wood of Rannoch

If I could give this novel a five-star Amazon review, I would.  However I’m not even going to attempt to post a review on Amazon as I don’t think it would take the staff of GCHQ to establish a family relationship between me and the author. Here on my own blog I can give it as many stars as I like. Ten – twenty – thirty?

I don’t do many book reviews but the ones I do are usually fairly concise. Hmm. How do I sum up a 600 page novel in a few paragraphs?

Well, I could try and identify some of the main features that struck me and have stayed with me since reading this novel in one of its earlier versions.

Many fantasy novels tell the story of an epic war between good and evil*, with an underlying theme that you have to make sacrifices to fight on the side of good and win but it’s worth it in the end. There is often little room for doubt in these other novels about which side is good and which evil. The captain of team evil surrounds himself with evil imagery: eternal winter or dark castles, swamps, giant spiders, smelly unprepossessing underlings and decaying vegetation. Then the hero rides in on a sometimes metaphorical white horse with a magic sword and defeats evil, usually at great personal cost to himself. Or, less frequently, to herself.

Although the word ‘war’ is in the title, and I am by no means an expert at excavating the underlying themes from books so I could be quite wrong, I don’t think the main theme of Alex Perry’s novel, ‘The War of Undoing’, is that it’s admirable to fight on the side of good and win, even if it takes sacrifice along the way. For one thing, it is difficult to tell which side is which in this war, especially as the main protagonists go their separate ways and are apparently destined to fight on different sides. In fact, though I will try not to give too much away here, the novel’s theme or underlying message, just at the point when it looks as if it will fall into the classic fantasy mode after all, turns out to be something rather different.

There are some other interesting and unusual features about the novel. There are four narrators, each with a different voice and a unique perspective on events.  In many ways it’s a complex family situation that is at the heart of the story, although events outside the family are tightly integrated into the plot as it develops. The world of the novel has its own mythology but without the need for a whole new language, something I always find self-indulgent and pretentious (yes, even in ‘Lord of the Rings’). It’s built up and explained gradually without too much straight description. There is humour, and there are gripping action sequences, including my favourite scenes involving Ellstone, the youngest protagonist, scenes which the author was forbidden to monkey around with too much, on pain of death, or at least on pain of no more pizza orders on Friday nights.

What else can I say? The writing style seems so effortless that you hardly even notice it. The book is long enough for you to become completely immersed in the story, but at the same time you don’t want it to end. Because this is intended as the first in a series, I hope it never does end.

*sorry to over-simplify – I can’t claim that fantasy is a genre I read very much of, so I got these ideas mostly from reading ‘Lord of the Rings’ and the novels of Terry Pratchett, which could be seen as subversions of the genre.


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