I've been a War of the Worlds fan for years, actually for, at this point, at least half of my life. Keep in mind I had never read the original novel, but I had been a fan of the George Pal produced film version, and I watched every episode of the Canadian television show in the late 80's early 90's. I even read the novel tie-in to that series, which is a pretty direct sequel to the 1953 film(not the original novella), and I've read several comics adaptations. But for some reason, a reason I have no explanation for, I've never gotten around to reading the HG Wells original. So with all of this War of the Worlds-inspired entertainment out there, was there anything new to discover in the book that started it all?
Basically everything was new to me, since all of the versions I've seen/read have taken substantial liberties with the source material. Even the 2005 Hollywood version, which was supposed to be fairly accurate, was an entirely new story set against the War of the Worlds backdrop. Some of the events in the book are mirrored in the film, but were often altered to the point where you can recognise the source but it's easy to miss.
The novel follows a nameless narrator(who we can assume is HG Wells, from the scattered references to family and occupation that we get) as he travels the English countryside during the Martian invasion. Separated from his wife, our hero has a series of adventures both alone and with a succession of quirky survivors. There's a couple chapters in the first half of the book where the protagonist recounts what his brother was off doing in London, and this opens the book up nicely, giving a larger picture of the war and illustrating how the mass public reacts to Martian invaders(the narrator spends his time in smaller burgs where the reaction is similar but on a much smaller scale). The mentions of his brother cease suddenly about halfway through the novel, but we can assume that he survived to tell the author his story.
For the entirety to novel is nicely [aced, and the glimpses we get of the war are enticing. Realistically, our hero never gets a full view of most of the skirmishes, and so his information is based on the pieces he saw, or second-hand information that another character recounts to him. The book is obviously written after the war has been resolved, but Wells avoids an omnipotent explanation for things he only experienced parts of. I can hazard a guess that the writer(the character, not Wells) was assuming a basic knowledge of these events by his potential audience. And the book does once or twice use the tried and true 'history has recorded' line to pass over some details without seeming to ignore them, but here it isn't too grievous. Usually I hate it when an author uses that device, but here it's used primarily for things I wouldn't be too interested in anyway. In fact, he could have used it a bit more, because he gets into the specifics of Martian anatomy a little too much, although interestingly they share some similarities with the Plant Men from Edgar Rice Burroughs' Gods of Mars(specifically the way they reproduce).
There are plenty of small details that I enjoyed, things that could have gone unnoticed, but their inclusion serves to add some realism and depth to the novel. There's an implied ecology on Mars, with a quick mention of a humanoid race that the Martians brought with them as a food supply(although they had all died by the time the war began), and the 'red weed' that begins to flourish in the wake of the Martians. And it turns out that in the book, that twist ending actually has some foreshadowing. During his lengthy discussion of Martian anatomy, Wells mentions that Mars is apparently fairly sterile, as the Martians have no bacteria or microscopic germs of any kind on their home planet.
In the end, however, I found the book a little too hard to get into. Aside from the absolutely brilliant opening paragraph, Wells writes in the familiar Victorian fashion; all run-on sentences and crisp, proper phrasing. That becomes it's downfall, actually; the book is too proper and, well, English to be truly engaging. I love everything about the book aside from the actual language, which is fairly distancing. Wells has some good ideas, and a good sense of forward momentum, but his actual writing skills, at least in this book, leave a little to be desired.
[I'm not actually sure why that cover was chosen for the book, since it's quite obvious the people on the cover are neither human nor Martian. This edition was printed in 1964, after the original movie had created it's own look for the Martians, and certainly went against the popular image of Wells' aliens. I wonder where they got it from.]