The War Within: Shows improvement, but it’s a pretty low bar

The War Within by Stephen R. DonaldsonThe War Within by Stephen R. Donaldson

The War Within (The Great God's War) Hardcover – April 2, 2019 by Stephen R. Donaldson (Author)I was sorely disappointed in Seventh Decimate, the first book in Stephen R. Donaldson‘s new series, THE GREAT GOD’S WAR. Luckily, the second book, The War Within (2019), shows improvement, but it’s a pretty low bar and so I can’t say it’s enough to convince me the series is worth starting (at least at this point).

(Here is your warning that this review will contain spoilers for book one).

The War Within jumps a few decades into the future, with the countries now at a tenuous peace due to Prince Bifalt of Belleger having married Princess Estie of Amika, a turn of events that came about thanks to what Bifalt had learned at the library of a “great enemy” coming, one that would require Amika and Belleger to ally to have any chance at all.

The marriage hasn’t been consummated in all that time because Bifalt refused to manipulate his queen as he had been manipulated by the Library (“consent” is a major theme in this book). The two work together toward preparing for the war to come, but mostly do so in their own, separate ways, with Estie’s project being the construction of a road to the Library and Bifalt’s being the fortification of the coast where they assume the enemy will attack.

The Great God's War by Stephen R. DonaldsonNow though, just as it seems the attack is imminent, the two rulers find themselves threatened from within and without: raids in outlying areas, traitors in their midst, the rise of a new Church that may or may not be a threat, assassination attempts, someone working to undermine the alliance, a mysterious new magic, and the always-suspect motivations of the Library itself. Plus, revelations about themselves and their relationship may serve as boon or bane in their attempts to ensure their nations’ survival.

As noted, this sequel is an improvement. Estie is a more interesting and engaging character than Bifalt, and so our time with her is much more palatable. The plot feels more coherent and focused, and is therefore more compelling in places. But otherwise many of the same problems arise.

The plot is compelling only in places, as much of it feels overly extended; cutting a few hundred pages would have been a large improvement, I’d say. Bifalt’s characterization problems remain the same: too angry, too strident, too much cheek-biting, too much telling us rather than showing us, and too little responding like an actual person (a problem for other characters as well).

Prose remains surprisingly, even shockingly, repetitive. There’s some clumsy exposition. There’s little sense of world-building, little reason to care about the upcoming war as this world, and the people who supposedly inhabit it just don’t feel real (this in stark, stark contrast to Donaldson’s THE CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT THE UNBELIEVER series). Characters do things that don’t make a lot of sense. Too much seems to happen because the plot needs it to happen as opposed to coming organically out of character or situation. And I could go on…

I’d caution anyone against starting this series. I’ll read book three (the things we reviewers do for our readers!), but it’s got a lot of seriously heavy lifting to do to raise this up to a recommended read. Instead, I’d say read or reread Donaldson’s THOMAS COVENANT series (a deserved classic) as a better use of time at this point.

2022 update: The final novel, The Killing God, is a huge leap up in quality.

Published in April 2019. Stephen R. Donaldson, the New York Times bestselling author of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, returns to the world of his Great God’s War fantasy epic as two kingdoms— united by force—prepare to be challenged by a merciless enemy… It has been twenty years since Prince Bifalt of Belleger discovered the Last Repository and the sorcerous knowledge hidden there. At the behest of the repository’s magisters, and in return for the restoration of sorcery to both kingdoms, the realms of Belleger and Amika ceased generations of war. Their alliance was sealed with the marriage of Bifalt to Estie, the crown princess of Amika. But the peace–and their marriage–has been uneasy. Now the terrible war that King Bifalt and Queen Estie feared is coming. An ancient enemy has discovered the location of the Last Repository, and a mighty horde of dark forces is massing to attack the library and take the magical knowledge it guards. That horde will slaughter every man, woman, and child in its path, destroying both Belleger and Amika along the way. With their alliance undermined by lingering hostility and conspiracies threatening, it will take all of the monarchs’ strength and will to inspire their kingdoms to become one to defend their land, or all is lost…

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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  1. Chris Noland /

    Right on. The angst is not channeled well and never seems to have the cathartic release as in The Covenant series.

  2. Tom Stanley /

    This is a good albeit brief synopsis and a fair review, though as a lifelong SRD fan I caution against the notion of cutting pages as a solution to pacing or salve for heavy lifting required by the reader – to really ponder and discover why these pages are there. Writers like Donaldson are a dying breed in this GBPS world of streaming entertainment. He requires slow reading. He takes years to write a book. But literally every word is to be savored. Thanks for your work on this!

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