After reading and immensely enjoying the winners of the 2018 and 2019 editions of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, I decided to start following the competition more closely and checking out the books that looked most intriguing. The 2020 SPFBO delivered one of my favorite books of the year in the semifinals, and when The Lost War won with the fourth-highest score in the history of the competition, I had to check out the opener to Justin Lee Anderson’s fantasy epic.
The Lost War is one of those works where reviews converge in such a way that fans and critics share broad agreement about the key aspects, even if they may disagree about the quality. Every review I’ve seen highlights two levels to the story: a surface level in which a band of fantasy adventurers go on a quest in service of a king, and a second level featuring a mystery about what drives the continued ravaging of the land in the aftermath of war. Furthermore, there’s broad consensus about jarring elements of the surface story and about the quality of the second-level resolution. The difference between those who love the book and those who don’t comes down to whether the mystery resolution justifies the jarring aspects of the surface story.
The Lost War starts with a motley crew of adventurers—a mage, an archer, a soldier, a sailor, a blacksmith, a monk, and a knight from a religious order—embarking on a quest to retrieve a foreign dignitary and deliver her safely across a war-torn country to be returned to her homeland. On the way, they must battle demons, marauding raiders, and zombie-like plague victims. But as they travel, they see more and more to suggest that the war might not be quite as finished as they thought, and piecing together the clues may be the key to saving their land.
Personally, the “fantasy band has adventures” subgenre has never been my preference, and Anderson demands quite a bit of trust from the reader in the early going, with a pretty thin justification for such a disparate group to come together on this particular quest. He isn’t helped by some clumsiness in the character introduction and some extremely over-the-top fantasy names (I mean, the villain is named Mynygogg). Fortunately, the characters grow from their awkward and archetypical introductions into fleshed-out individuals, and Anderson’s flowing and compelling writing style helps generate interest even before he spins up the second-level plot.
When The Lost War does start dropping hints about the second-level mystery plot, it never replaces the surface plot—there are still perils aplenty to fight through—but it does generate enough questions to keep the reader engaged through what may otherwise feel like repetitive side quests and action sequences. The stakes feel higher as the band gets closer and closer to finding answers, even if many of the background locations and supernatural enemies blur together. And Anderson ultimately repays the reader’s trust with an excellent climax, foreshadowed well enough to feel earned but not so much that it’s easy to guess in advance. Not only does it provide a thrilling finish, it casts the puzzling aspects of the opening in a new light, justifying what had felt like an odd introduction. Some of the clumsy character descriptions remain, as do the occasional lines of dialogue that feel too modern, but it’s an ending that makes the whole book better and provides an excellent hook for a sequel.
Ultimately, The Lost War is a really enjoyable read that should satisfy those looking for fantasy adventures and those who enjoy mystery plots. The backdrop can blur together, and none of the characters ascended to a truly exceptional level, but excitement throughout and a strong ending made this one well worth it. There’s definitely plenty of room for a sequel—and it will be interesting to see how the sequel shifts subgenres, given the resolution of the mystery aspect—and I’m looking forward to it.
Recommended if you like: fantasy adventure bands, puzzle plots in epic fantasy settings.
Can I use it for Bingo? It should serve as hard mode for Mystery Plot, as well as easy mode for Self-Published, Genre-Mashup, 500+ Pages, and Found Family.
Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.