The Lost War Is a Satisfyingly Traditional Old School Fantasy

Books Reviews Justin Lee Anderson
The Lost War Is a Satisfyingly Traditional Old School Fantasy

There’s something deeply satisfying about a simple story well told. These days, most fantasy authors (and readers) seem to gravitate toward elaborate stories spread over continents and occasionally timelines, with complex magical systems, intricate political or historical hierarchies, and the kind of dense internal lore that occasionally requires a supplementary guidebook. And don’t get me wrong, all of those things, when well done, are incredible. But sometimes it’s nice to just read a straightforward adventure for a change. And while Justin Lee Anderson’s The Lost War ultimately turns out to be more complicated than it appears at first glance, its banger of an ending is one that only works because of the slow, old-school sword and sorcery-style storytelling that precedes it. 

Much of Anderson’s tale is fairly traditional fantasy: A band of roguish misfit types with a variety of different and somehow also totally complementary abilities are forced to go on a quest together. And they not only find themselves changed by their journey together, but in possession of a new understanding of the world around them, and their place in it.


The Lost War cover

There is danger and death and monsters no one has ever seen before. But there is also growth and friendship and hope, in both one another and in their vision of a better future. Of course, this quest also has hidden depths, of a sort that ultimately send our heroes off on a bigger, much more complicated mission, one that might well upend the world they know. Stop me if you’ve read some of that somewhere before, okay?

Yet, despite the fact that the bulk of The Lost War is comprised of familiar beats and character types, the novel still manages to feel fresh and intriguing thanks to the deft, surprising ways that Anderson chooses to assemble these age-old characters and tropes. The result is something that’s a far more compelling read than it has any right to be—and more so than you’ll initially assume from its early chapters. (Stick with it, this story is like nothing so much as a boulder rolling down a hill, inexorably pulling you forward as a reader and building momentum toward a surprising payoff.) 

The story is set in the kingdom of Eidyn, in the aftermath of a brutal war. While King Janneus’s forces may have defeated and imprisoned the dangerous droidh (mages with specific areas of ability such as illusion or necromancy) known as Mynygogg, the country’s problems are far from over. Demons still stalk the land, a dark plague known as the Blackened is turning entire towns into slavering zombies, droidhs are still being persecuted by their countrymen for their abilities, and the common people are struggling to buy necessities. 

In the midst of this chaos, Aranok, the King’s Envoy and right-hand advisor, is tasked with a mission to rescue a deposed foreign queen in the hopes of restoring her to her country’s throne. Himself a droidh, Aranok carries plenty of scars from a lifetime of discrimination and doesn’t trust others easily. Though he’s happy to take his bodyguard and lover Allandria along with him on this journey, he’s less pleased about being saddled with a hard-drinking soldier named Glorabad and a former pirate captain named Nirea. (In fact, he spends a big chunk of the book wondering if they’re spies.) Along the way, they encounter a holy knight named Samily, and a troubled Monk called Meristan, who have been sent on their own mission to join the king’s council alongside Aranok. 

As the group travels together across Eidyn’s devastated landscape, they discover new monsters, meet suffering people, and uncover several inexplicable mysteries, of the sort that make it apparent from quite early on that there’s much more to this story than meets the eye. The group battles monsters, helps villagers, and gets distracted from their primary mission by both personal issues and mortal dangers. Along the way, the oddball assortment of characters ever so slowly evolves into a real team, with genuine bonds forming between even its most unlikely members. 

There’s a lot of The Lost War that feels like a sort of high-end Dungeons and Dragons game, complete with sidequests to find various MacGuffins with tenuous connections to the larger story and stereotypical party members who each have to work through their own emotional baggage. (There’s a cynical wizard, a badass archer, a faithful knight, a cunning pirate, a teen blacksmith, and more.) The battle sequences are descriptive and thrilling, and the larger hints at the world that once existed—the rebellion that initially put Janneus on the throne, Eidyn’s longtime conflict with the neighboring Reivers, the first hints of the arrival of the Blackening—add richness and texture without overwhelming readers with lore.

But, surprisingly, it’s these characters who are what make this adventure one worth going on, a flawed, world-weary, and thoroughly compelling group of often reluctant heroes who ultimately come to care about one another in rich and unexpected ways. Each of them, from Aranok to Samily to Glorabad, has their own agenda and personal demons to battle, and their growth over the course of the story’s five hundred-plus pages is both satisfying and earned.

Though one could certainly argue the story’s biggest reveals take their sweet time arriving—just in time to set up the next book, naturally—- the twists that arrive within the novel’s last fifty or so pages are deeply thrilling ones that will ultimately make sense of many of the most confusing elements from earlier in the novel and leave readers desperate for the sequel.

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin