The War of Undoing is, at first appearances, a pretty straightforward book. The humans and the vuma live in an uneasy (and clearly temporary) peace. [ominous thunder]
With that established, cut to...
Three children - the Rainings - living alone, unchaperoned, and in poverty in the unwelcoming city of Tarot. They receive a mysterious message saying that they're needed for a Great and Magical Cause. This gift horse seems like a truly spectacular chance. They can leave the city, pursue their capital-D-Destiny, and maybe even find - and bollock - their absentee parents.
Of course, things are never really so simple - not even in even high fantasy. The Rainings are quickly separated, and head down their own paths, making new friends (and enemies) along the way. More worrying, what they assumed was their Destiny is perhaps someone else's. The three children learn that being the instrument of a Great Cause is less about being a hero and more about being, well, a tool.
This is a long - and often quite meandering - book. There's a slow start, followed by a lot of quiet, discursive tangents. Several of Undoing's plots and 'hints' don't coalesce until the very end, and certain momentuous occasions and world-changing events - which would be the very heart and soul of other fantasy novels - are downplayed, and shifted to the background. As a result, The War of Undoing can feel frustrating at times. But, and I can't stress this enough, stick with it: this book simply has different priorities.
The War of Undoing uses a deceptively simple premise and a by-the-numbers fantasy world to great effect. It isn't a book about what happens, where it happens, or, in some cases, even who it happens to. It is, instead, a book about the why - the choices we make, and what drives us to them.
The 'undoing' of the title clearly refers to one of the book's pivotal events, but, more broadly, this is a book about mistakes - about people doing the wrong thing for personal, emotional, rational, good, or bad reasons. At some point in this book - like in life - everyone fucks up. And this is, ultimately, a book about what happens next: trust, forgiveness, grief, and penitence.
And, of course: agency - The War of Undoing is also about individuals aggressively defying the will of others, and refusing to be constrained by notions of blood (literally or symbolically), race, history, fate or destiny. All of that (waves hands broadly) - plus the encouragement of free-thinking, the thoughtfulness, the internal and external debates, the eschewing of absoluteness - is going on.
For fans of Chaos Walking - especially The Ask & The Answer (which is, coincidentally, my favourite book of Ness' series). Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now also tackles some similar themes. Alwyn Hamilton's Rebel of the Sands has a similar vibe, but is a bit more traditionally Chosen-y in how it executes. Setting aside my well-documented feelings about The Wise Man's Fear, there's a lot of what's good about Rothfuss in The War of Undoing: the ambitious shifting of priorities, the quirky protagonist, the thoughtful re-use of hoary high fantasy tropes.
Right! Grab your 10' pole and copper pieces with Continual Light on them - we're going back in for the last time!
Fighter (Entertainment!): The War of Undoing starts slowly and tangentially. A vuma rebel reviews his life, and how he got into a particular (and precarious) position. This is seemingly all about creating atmosphere, as, from this prologue, we leap to the miserable port city of Tarot, and the plight of three abandoned children. You're confused. You should be, but roll with it. The children then leap into their own adventures: some go hither, others stay yon. There's a lot of meandering. You might be looking at your watch. Then another point of view - another young woman, this one signing up for the military, and seemingly completely irrelevant. You're amused, but now you miss the children. Cue: meandering. But you're starting to get the hang of it. Then... it starts to come back together. Characters encounter and re-encounter, plot-points connect. You're well into this now. We discover that not everyone is on the same side. In fact, all the sides aren't on their own, er, sides. This is great. More meandering - also, un-meandering: everyone is stuck places. Things get worse. You're tense. Things get much worse. You're furious. Things get terrible. You're stunned. Things get better. You're relieved, mostly. Wait, things are still bad? You're not certain. Things are resolved. Or are they? You're a little shaky. Maybe a bit of something in your eye. It happens.. And then - the prologue? Comes right back and SMACKS YOU IN THE FEELS.
Anyway,.. again - stick with it. There's a destination in mind, but a lot of stops along the way. Level 8.
Magic-User (World-Building!): Kyland is a streamlined world. There are two races - humans and vumas. The former use technology, the latter rely on magic. The human Government is sort of oligarchy - with a council of 99 voting members (and their various subcommittees) ruling the land. Magic is similarly tidy: there's natural magic, which flows through a mysterious portal, and then the mechanical equivalent, based on storing that magical floooooow in specially-treated artefacts. For the purposes of Undoing, magic invariably down into a handful of essential uses: lightning zaps and mind-reading are the most commonly referenced, with other, more complex rituals and spells reserved for hand-wavier plot points.
None of it is simple, but it is simplistic - basic structures that are conventionally fantastical and easily understood. There's a magical city for the vumas, a sad city for our heroes' childhood, a very important city for the human government. Archetypes - with nuance preserved for when and where we need it.
The result? Think of it as a rapid development platform. The reader gets what they need to get about Kyland, the magic, and the setting - but none of that is the focus of the story. Level 6.
Cleric (Characters!): Yuppers. There are three key point of view characters - the siblings: Tay, Miller and Ellstone Raining. If I'm going to be picky (surprise, I am!), they do all have very similar voices. Miller is more airily academic, Ellstone is more...uh... aggressive and academic, and Tay is ... adventurous. But they all sound very much the same. Fortunately, they see one another as very different, so their individuality comes out through one another's voices, if not their own. Helpfully, they're all quite likeable. They poke and snark - even do a bit of angsting - but can be relied upon to do [what they think is] the right thing. The Rainings are also bold - they are the agents of their own destiny, which makes them fun to follow as a reader.
There's also a fourth perspective, Kisli, a young woman who has a completely different voice. She's naive and chipper, almost to the point of exhaustion - but with surprising depths. She's a contrast to the Rainings: optimistic where they are bitter, innocent where they are jaded. She asks questions where they make assumptions. As a result, she's an essential beat in the narrative, providing an emotional and contextual counterpoint.
I found the villains - both human and vuma - to be mildly cartoonish, but some of the secondary characters are simply terrific. Crystal, a particularly talented vuma telepath, was my favourite. She's very chilly, no surprise given her harrowing role as a servant to the aggressive leaders of the vuma rebellion. We're never quite sure if she's a good guy or a bad guy, or if her decisions are pragmatic or emotional. She's a surprising character, and a joy to puzzle out. Level 16.
Thief (Surprises!): Yes. This is going to be tricky to talk about without spoilers, and, honestly - you don't deserve to have this book spoiled. But a thing happens. And then a thing happens with how they talk about that thing, which makes you reassess whole parts of the book in a really sneakily clever way. And there's another thing that happens that is - in terms of Big Fantasy Stuff - a really big deal and it is never definitively resolved, in way that is a) probably a set-up for the rest of the series and b) rather exquisitely poetic, and adds a - for lack of a better word - shadow over the book and its conclusion - or does it? Which isn't to say The War of Undoing isn't self-contained (it is), it just chooses to focus, and not focus, on stuff in an unusual way. Basically, this entire paragraph will read as total nonsense, but... yes. In very good ways, yes. Level 16.
Something else (Whatever!): The War of Undoing isn't a titan of world-building. It isn't particularly complex in that way - much the reverse. The characters are great, but (probably deservedly) docked a bit for having some samey-ness with some of the voices. The action and drama are back-weighted, so, in fairness, book is kind of a slog at times. Yes, it is surprising, but... even that can only go so far.
What I don't have in my scoring - except for this metric - is the bit where I can step back and say, It just works. I don't know why, or where, or how, but I was admittedly a LITTLE choked up at the end, and that twist made my stomach hurt, and that other twist made me gasp, and I love how there's that one huge thing that we just never resolve, because, that's simply too big - and this is a book about little people facing huge decisions and sometimes they get them wrong and that's ok because it is also about forgiveness.
So, good thing I've got my faff metric, right? So Undoing earns some Bard levels - it is a ridiculous class, but, hell, it fits. This is a very good book. Level 12.
Total party levels: 58