Nathan’s review of The Lost War by Justin Lee Anderson.
Justin Lee Anderson originally self-published The Lost War in 2019, winning the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO) before getting picked up by Orbit Books. I have been wanting to dive into this book since it won the SPFBO crown, but I held off until the published version was available as Anderson has said that this would be the improved and expanded “official” version of the book.
I’m not sure what exactly was changed or added to the book, but I will say that I am a bit mad at myself for waiting so long to visit the world of Eidyn. Not only was this because I really enjoyed this book, but also because there has been a lot of discussion over the book’s ending (which I will talk about below in a spoiler-filled section); I wasn’t spoiled about the ending, but I heard enough vague chatter to kind of get an idea of what was coming, and the experience for me. But I won’t say more here so as not to spoil anyone else who is experiencing this book for the first time!
In many ways The Lost War is a traditional epic fantasy adventure. The early pages of the book spend some time building a party of adventurers (some reluctantly, and many with history and baggage to spare) as they try to save the struggling kingdom from the reemergence of a potential threat. Our party of heroes than travels around the continent, visiting various locales, meeting new characters, battling monsters and demons, finding McGuffins, and more. This gives the book a really polished Dungeons and Dragons feel, one in which all of those classic adventuring elements are there but without feeling like someone just copy/pasted their latest DnD game into a book format. Fans of this style of fantasy will particularly enjoy what The Lost War has to offer.
There are a lot of characters in The Lost War, most of whom get a direct POV. Unless you really hate multi-POV stories, the large cast of characters/POVs really works here because Anderson paints each of his characters with a detailed and nuanced brush. No two characters feel too similar, and they all differ in terms of the roles they occupy in Eidyn’s society. This not only ensures that each character has a distinct purpose in the story, but it also does a nice job of subtly building out the world, as we learn about the society’s history of religion, warfare, naval navigation, and more just from the characters being themselves. There is also some nice diversity in other ways, including a nice balance of men and women, as well as some exploration of queerness and how it operates in the world.
This book is also full of magic, creatures, demons, and more. If you have ever felt that perhaps modern fantasy is not quite fantastical enough for you, Anderson has got you covered. The magic users in this book each have their own specialty, whether that be earth magic, necromancy, illusionists, shape-shifters, etc., giving the magic system enough of a variety while also feeling a bit different from the sheer number of elemental-based magic systems we’ve been seeing in epic fantasy. The characters, such as our main character, the earth-mage Aranok, get to use these magical powers against enemies both human and demon, resulting in some really fun battle/action sequences that add excitement to the narrative without over-staying their welcome.
If there was one element of the book that didn’t always work for me, it was the pacing. There were parts of the book that really lagged, punctuated by sections that were really exciting and twisty. Part of this was that the cast of characters is quite large for a book this size (and many of the adventurers are POV characters that we bounce between), but it may also be the result of the world feeling very same-y.
Anderson does a really great job of describing and building a dark world very much still in the early days of recovering from a long and brutal civil war. The downside of this kind of worldbuilding is that individual locales lacked uniqueness or texture. Every place had the same run-down, war torn, classical medieval aesthetic, with a bit of Scottish flavor thrown into the mix. Despite the characters traversing rather far distances, I was disappointed that the places they visited weren’t differentiated more. I love quest novels of this because I wanted to be awed by every new place and their own cultural differences. I didn’t get that in The Lost War, and because of that the book felt like one extended scene, no matter how many new places they visited.
***Spoiler Section About the Ending – Skip to the End if You Haven’t Read this book yet!***
As I briefly mentioned above, The Lost War is mostly known for its twist of an ending. And I will say, it was a pretty great twist. I love when the rug is completely pulled out from under the audience, where everything you thought was happening is not what is actually happening at all. And I especially love it the way that Anderson did it here, where the twist actually makes sense. The fact that everyone had their memory wiped and new relationships planted fit into everything we knew about the world and its magic system.
It was also smart for Anderson to allow the characters to retain the memories of their cursed selves (Once Upon a Time style) along with their previous memories. I think there is often a trend of “big” twists like this one to completely invalidate everything that came before; they often dim and deaden the journey so far. However, I think that this twist actually expands the narrative and character development possibilities. This twist will force our heroes to tackle who they have been since the Long War vs. who they were before it.
While the twist did make the whole first book a setup for that final reveal, I think it is absolutely going to make for a more interesting series moving forward.
***End of Spoiler Section***
There isn’t much more for me to say about The Lost War. I was immersed in this dark-yet-fun epic fantasy adventure. Was it absolutely unique or life changing? No. But Anderson included enough new elements to the epic fantasy/DnD playbook for this book to feel just unique enough. Not my favorite read of the year, but I will be eagerly awaiting the release of Book 2 this October!
Concluding Thoughts: Anderson’s book is perfect for fans of the traditional fantasy feel, but in a dark and broken world. He populates the book with a diverse cast of characters who all feel fully realized, and who develop competing needs, desires, and wants without those oft-conflicting needs feeling contrived or only there to create drama. While the pacing is a tad slow in parts (made worse by the “sameness” of this world), this adventure is one that is worth going on. The ending of the book also sets up for exciting new plot and character directions in the next three books in this series.