Faction Paradox
Warring States

Author Mags L Halliday Cover image
Published 2005
ISBN 0 97259 598 8
Publisher Mad Norwegian Press

Synopsis: Takes place in China, 1900, and concerns Cousin Octavia (the Faction Paradox member responsible for the fall of the Thirteen-Day Republic).


A Review by John Seavey 1/10/05

It's a wonderfully written book, with excellent prose, but sometimes I felt that Warring States was so subtle as to be practically homeopathic literature. The whole story is about Cousin Octavia's quest for a jade casket that promises eternal life, and about Liu Hui Ying's quest for that same casket which she sees as a relic of her people... but the two characters are both drawn in such subtle shades, and the reasons for their obsession with the casket so cunningly and quietly concealed within the greater narrative, that I never felt like I really had a clear sense of why it was imperative for them at all.

Without that sense of an imperative, there was never any real tension to my progress through the novel. When Liu or Octavia seemed to be just about to lose one lead or another to the whereabouts of the casket, or when one cunningly outwitted or outfought the other to get a precious clue, I found myself wondering why the loser didn't just give up and go get a cup of tea somewhere. Sure, it's immortality, sure, it's a precious icon of the Han people, but I never really got a sense of need from either character. (Octavia's helped a bit towards the end by the appearance of another Faction character, Prester John, who helps dole out a bit of unsubtle hinting at what Octavia once was and what she hopes immortality might make her again.) But even so, I just felt that the characters were drawn... not badly at all, but a bit too subliminally to get a grip on in the first read-through.

As with Halliday's previous novel, though, I'm left with the lingering feeling that it could just be me. I can recognize good writing when I read it, and Warring States does an excellent job of drawing China at the turn of the twentieth century, as well as moving both of its main characters through their paces as they get closer to the secret of the casket and its connection with their history and future. Once you get to the key twist, the book moves rapidly to its ultimate conclusion, which is too entertaining to spoil. I definitely liked the ending, even if the beginning and the middle never quite gelled for me.

A Review by Finn Clark 18/10/06

I find myself in an odd position regarding Warring States, which I thought was good, but curiously uninvolving. It does nothing obviously wrong. It has solid research, a nice historical period and an imaginative plot. Nevertheless it has a sterility, which I also felt in History 101. It has everything it needs except that urgency which really brings a story alive. The pages passed easily enough, but somehow they often didn't make me care.

Admittedly this is a feature of the Faction Paradox universe as a whole. It's cold, more interested in huge SF ideas than characters. If the individual books hadn't been so good, the line would have withered on the vine long ago... like Lawrence's Faction Paradox comic book, now I come to think about it. It's like the Steve Cole era but better executed, i.e. without Steve Cole. A classic example of this is Of The City of the Saved..., which yielded a good book but is still a dead weight on the fictional universe as a whole. Every human ever born will be resurrected in the City. Wow. That's a hell of a thing to inflict on your fellow novelists. Here we have the first signs of strain, with Warring States having to squint around the fact that all of its characters are immortals-to-be. That's a plot problem, believe it or not. Mags copes okay, but her novel would have been stronger without the City's presence. That's something I'd personally never allow in an time-travelling fictional universe, but that's just me.

To my surprise I'm starting to run out of things to say, since the book has no real faults I can point at. Its virtues on the other hand are obvious, such as its evocation of China during the Boxer rebellion circa 1900. As so often, history is more alien than aliens. Some of what we see is appalling and gives the book a lot of flavour. Unfortunately it might also give a certain distancing effect, if like me you tend to lose sympathy for a society that collectively was in need of bending over, dropping its pants and going in for some serious stick removal. Yes, I know. I'm not being politically correct. Oriental societies have much to teach us about politeness and respect, one shouldn't judge by Western standards, yadda yadda... okay, that's undeniable, but it doesn't stop these guys from being at times a right bunch of twats. Of course the Europeans aren't always any better.

It's rich in detail about China in 1900 without ever becoming a history lesson, although perhaps contrarily I wouldn't have minded a little more overview. Given Faction Paradox's nature, giving a broader perspective wouldn't have been inappropriate. I've just done a websearch for the Boxer rebellion and now feel I have a better grip on the historical context than I got just from reading Warring States, which concentrates more on the nitty-gritty of life in China. From that point of view, it's impressive.

I like the retelling of the same events from different viewpoints. The novel eventually becomes a time travel mystery, not so much about what happened as "was there a causal loop involved?" and "will it be the result of stuff that hasn't happened yet?" I've criticised the Faction Paradox universe, but it certainly lends itself well to this kind of mystery. What's more, there's no guarantee that what happened will always have happened. One's usual assumptions don't apply.

The book also uses wuxia, which is apparently a Hong Kong action movie genre in which the heroes defy the laws of physics. It means "flying men". The best-known example, although apparently far from the best film, is Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. All that I liked. It added flavour and made things more exciting without violating one's sense of Chinese-ness. Without the book's wuxia tricks, the pivotal fight scene we see on the front cover would have been uninterestingly one-sided.

I don't know if I'd necessarily recommend Warring States. It has that bloodlessness I mentioned, despite having plenty of action and violence. Obviously it's streets ahead of almost everything published by BBC Books in the last few years, but that's not saying much. It's well-written. It's interesting. Nevertheless to me it feels less like storytelling than it does an exercise in wordsmithery. Mags Halliday is clearly an author to watch, but next time I'd like to see her roll up her sleeves a bit more. Do you know what I mean?