The Killing God by Stephen R. Donaldson
I was not, to put it mildly, a fan of Seventh Decimate, the opening book of Stephen R. Donaldson’s GREAT GODS WAR trilogy. Book two, The War Within (2022), was an improvement, but marginally. The good news is that book three, The Killing God, is a big jump up, though the obvious bad news is one has to get through the first two to arrive here, begging the question of is it worth the journey? Warning: spoilers for the first two books to follow as I try to answer that question.
The long-awaited invasion of Belleger by the Great God Rile is about to commence. At the point of invasion, King Bifalt readies his plans and defenses against Rile’s overwhelming force. Meanwhile, his wife and ally, Queen Estie of Amika, has journeyed to the Last Repository, the great library where she hopes to awaken the sorcery she’s just discovered she carries within her, though she doesn’t know what her power is or how it might help them against Rile.
As noted, The Killing God is a vast improvement on the prior two books, lacking any of the issues that caused me so much grief earlier. The book flows smoothly, propulsively forward; the language is rich and vibrant without any of the repetition that so marred earlier book; the plot grows organically rather than relying on implausible actions/choices. Characterization has been smoothed out (especially with regard to Bifalt) and spread amongst a larger group we become deeply invested in, particularly Bifalt’s general and captains.
Donaldson offers up some quite moving scenes, as well as a number of tense one on one confrontations and major battle scenes, each of which is its own type of battle, offering its own type of readerly anxiety. One of my favorite segments involves a relatively unique way of portraying one such battle, with the Repostitory’s magical “far-lookers” relaying the events to Queen Estie and others, but thanks to the darkness and the inability of the far-lookers to hear, increases the suspense and tension as they struggle to accurately describe what is happening on the battlefield. And this being Donaldson, there are also a number of fraught, more interior or philosophical debates, particularly with regard to the wielding of power, the obligations of duty, tyrants’ fear of knowledge, and the difficulties and joys of human relationships.
The Killing God isn’t wholly without flaw. I’d argue that it could be a bit better balanced between battles and non-battle scenes, even if the battle scenes are vividly portrayed. And I found myself, as has been the case throughout the series, wishing for a greater sense of the world beyond these characters. The battle against an implacable foe in Donaldson’s earlier THOMAS COVENANT series, for instance, had such powerful impact because readers were so attached to the Land and the people within it. Here, that sense of just what Bifalt and Estie are fighting to protect isn’t as fully realized or felt and while that doesn’t have much impact on the individual scenes, it does rob the book a bit of a larger effect.
So is it worth the journey to arrive here at The Killing God, a book that honestly feels wholly detached from the series in its quality, almost as if it were written by a completely different author? It’s difficult to say. I certainly thoroughly enjoyed this read, and as is the case with everything, time (it’s been a few years obviously since I read book one) softens the memory of less pleasant moments. And given how much excellent writing is out there, recommending one reads two weak books (one quite so) to get to an excellent one seems a bit silly. But I supposed I’d say give Seventh Decimate a shot and if you react less strongly to it, just keep going. If you have the same reaction I did, consider skimming through it just to pick up plot (but don’t feel bad about just giving up on the series if you so choose), then read book two, which isn’t great but certainly better, and finally settle in for a good attentive read with The Killing God.