The Lost War – Escher’s Box

If you could, for a moment, please picture me with my hands on my temples, eyes closed, and letting out a sigh of frustration. That is where I find myself trying to figure out how to review today’s book. The Lost War, by Justin Lee Anderson, is one of those inherently difficult books to talk about because much of the book’s power comes from the reader’s discovery. However, in this particular instance, many of the book’s strengths and weaknesses are inherently tied to its enigmatic nature, making it a tricky review. After much deliberation, I have settled on the following path forward. Following this paragraph, I will talk about the plot of The Lost War at a high level. If it interests you enough to pick it up, I recommend checking it out without further reading. But, if you need additional information before making the call, I will continue with the mildest spoilers I can.

The war is over, but something is rotten in the state of Eidyn. Aranok, court mage to the king, has his hands full solving 100 problems at once, each with the potential to destroy the country. A rogue necromancer is raising an army, demons ravage the countryside, mages are going missing, a plague ravages the borders, foreign countries are sending raiders, and the idle army is starting to cause problems to name a few. Aranok is slowly losing his grip on his sanity trying to hold everything together, which is why when his king sends him on a bizarre escort quest to a foreign dignitary, he is starting to question his royal friend’s judgment. Aranok finds himself in an unasked-for questing party of heroes on a journey he doesn’t want to complete. But, if the King says it’s important, he is honor bound to give it his best. 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?

Alright, now that those who want to remain pure are gone, let’s name the elephant in the room. This book revolves almost entirely around the idea of the unreliable narrator. Almost immediately when you start The Lost War, the vibe will be off. Stories won’t match up between characters, chronology seems askew, and large pieces of the story seem to be constantly missing. Characters have confusing agendas that will appear either counterintuitive or nonsensical. The progression of events will feel choppy and hard to digest.

All of this led to a reading experience that was …difficult…at first. I struggled to get attached to the characters. There never felt like there was any direction to the story, and I just felt aimlessly lost wandering around the hellish landscape of Eidyn. Weird problems start piling up more and more and more. I knew there was something off but I could never put my finger on it… until it is revealed that the story was being told poorly on purpose. All the little details that were pulling me out of the flow weren’t artifacts of poor writing but stylistic choices of a clever plan for the narrative. The reveal is good. Really good. Not in a “wow, what a twist, I didn’t see that coming” sort of way. It is more like shaking 1,000 puzzle pieces and then suddenly getting grand clarity as to what the picture was the entire time. Does the reveal make up for a book that was intentionally difficult to read for several hundred pages? In this instance, I think yes. Although The Lost War could have been a bit smoother and still kept its core ideas, ultimately I appreciate the clever space it is playing in enough to forgive its weird pacing. A book isn’t obligated to hook you in its first pages, and this feels like an instance where the reader’s work is rewarded.

In addition to all the narrative shenanigans, the book has several other positive elements going for it. The characters are memorable, even if they struggle to find the place a little at first. The questing party is made up of 7 individuals, each with a fun personality and role. While their chemistry is quite good (despite their lack of trust), the burden of agency tends to fall to one of two characters: our lead and one supporting. However, one thing I really liked is two of the party members are married and depicted as being in a long-term stable relationship, a rarity in fantasy and I found it remarkably refreshing here.

The land of Eidyn itself is a fun character in the story as well, asking the age-old question, “What if an Escher painting fucked Pandora’s Box?” Everything you learn about this world seems to be a) terrible, and b) an open door to new horrors. Everything our heroes do to try to fix things also seems to just be moving the problems around instead of making progress. It is a fascinating exercise in describing a country stuffed with mysteries that you could not pay me to set foot in. I initially wasn’t the biggest fan of the magic system, a born with a rare magical gift set up where magic users are subjected to extreme racism. The trappings of the magic are cool with several interesting mages, but the substance of who does what magic initially felt like Anderson just patching holes in his story with undefined magic. Then I got to the unreliable narrator part, found out I was lied to in parts of the story, and the implications of the magic became more interesting.

All of these elements boil down to a book that I ended up enjoying after some difficulty, and an unqualified excitement for book two in the series. Now that the cat is out of the bag, I am invested in the journey I find myself on and want to see where we go next. The Lost War was a slightly challenging read that ended up absolutely being worth it. It is a book that has an atmosphere that is so thick it exudes out of the book and begs to be examined. Also, fine Anderson, I will say it, your title is very clever.

Rating: The Lost War – 8.5/10

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An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.

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