Today I am delighted to be sharing my review for The Lost War by Justin Lee Anderson, a finalist in SPFBO 6. This is the first book in the Eidyn series, which I spent yesterday devouring.
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?
Where do I even start with this book?! I picked up The Lost War at Christmas because I had vouchers to spend and I wanted to read some more of the SPFBO books and the cover immediately caught my eye, while the premise sounded right up my street. So, I went into this book, hoping that it lived up to both, and expecting to enjoy it.
Well, I was right…only I didn’t just enjoy it, I bloody loved every single moment of it and everything about it.
An increasingly large part of my life revolves around D&D (as my nephew has informed me, I am getting nerdier as I get older) and it wasn’t hard to draw comparisons with this book at least towards the start. You’ve got the coming together of the party for a quest, and then all the numerous sidequests and distractions (because you have to investigate and get side-tracked just to foil your DMs plans), but while those elements are certainly there, and another reason why I enjoyed this book so much, it would be doing this book and the author a disservice to reduce them down to that element. Because, The Lost War has layers upon layers, and the entire book is about gradually peeling back those layers to discover what lays beneath, with more than a few surprises along the way.
The start of the book is slower, taking the time to develop the characters – and what characters they are (but more on that later), the world, and the dangers that inhabit this land and the troubles that have followed even though the war is over, and the Draoidh (magician) largely held responsible had been locked away. I loved this part, and the slower pacing was easily forgiven because you want to learn more, and then once you think you’ve come to grips with everything, the pace and the plot begin to build. There was as subtlety to the pacing and the revelations, as mysteries unfolded, answers were found but more questions were raised, and just as you thought you knew what was happening, there would be another twist. Almost from the beginning of this book, you can tell that something is off in this world, but Anderson uses the pacing and the twists to not only build on that feeling, leaving a creeping, ominous atmosphere that grips you and keeps you focused, waiting for the next development, but also does an excellent job of keeping the mystery just out of reach.
As much as the mystery and quests drive the narrative, it was the characters that truly carried it. There was a fantastic cast of characters, who each had their own distinct voice, perspective and personalities, and they were each wonderfully realised both as individuals and members of the party. They came from a range of backgrounds, bringing different experiences and skills with them, and there was a depth to each one, that meant that it was impossible to pigeon-hole them just by their role. What I particularly enjoyed was that they didn’t immediately mesh with one another, flaws and experiences, and differing views on their task, on faith and trust, meant that there were arguments and conflicts, as well as negotiation, compromise and development, and consequences where there needed to be. This was a poignant, believable group of characters brought together by duty and circumstance, and choosing to do and become something more, and I don’t think the story would have been as strong if even a single one of them had been missing (especially if Nirea and Allandria hadn’t been there to keep Aranok and Glorbad in line and knock some sense into them where needed).
The world-building was just as rich and detailed and varied as the cast, and every element was well thought through and gripping, from the demons to the deadly plague (mercifully nothing like *gestures at the world*) and the menace they brought, to the role of faith and the White Thorns – knights or Paladins who were revered for their fighting prowess. Then there was the intrigue and challenges of a country fresh from a war, that was threatening to be torn apart by those threats, by other factions and the attempts to stop that from happening, and the suspicions of other machinations behind the scenes that grows throughout the book.
The Draiodh were one of my favourite elements of the worldbuilding, not least because although it was integral to the world and the plot, Draoidh including Aranok were regarded with fear and hatred even though magic had helped win the war and was protecting them, it had also contributed to the war. That prejudice is evident even within the party and adds another dimension to the relationships between some of the characters, and Aranok poses an interesting intersection between that fear – we can see how that fear and the reactions it produces affect him and have shaped him, and yet at the same time, despite being a Draoidh he has risen to a position of power as King’s Envoy. The magic itself was fascinating and so easy to visualise through Anderson’s entertaining and detailed descriptions and well-balanced action scenes, and it was fun to see the characters having to adapt and use the magic in different ways depending on the situation and how far they had already pushed themselves.
Also, hello Scottish Gaelic I see you there, and I have to admit my excitement and love for this book leapt several levels when I recognised the language. Then there was the fact that there is a cost to the user if they go to their limits and beyond, in terms of exhaustion and potentially deadly, which is something I’ve realised recently that I am a huge fan of. There was also a fantastic range of abilities, and I enjoyed how our knowledge of what was possible expanded throughout the book, and there are a couple that I can’t wait to see in action in future books because the possibilities are amazing to consider.
Then there’s the ending!! I thought that I was used to the twists and turns by that point, and I was so, so sure that I had worked it out as we drew towards the climax of this book. Ridiculously confident about it in fact and I have never been so delighted to have been wrong because I sure as hell didn’t see that twist coming. I was right about one aspect (so, small victory dance there?), but other than that I was completely caught by surprise and oh my goodness it was delicious. Once the surprise has settled (a little at least, as I think it will take me a while to get over that ending), you can then appreciate how beautifully crafted that ending twist is, because it is perfect and shocking, and everything I didn’t know I needed.
I can’t wait for the next book, because I want to spend more time in this world, with these characters and I NEED to know what happens next. I know that I will be rereading this one sooner rather than later, and I cannot sing this book’s praises highly enough, it’s an absolute gem of a book.
If you’ve read it, or read it in the future, please feel free to shout at me about this fantastic book.