The War Within by Stephen R. Donaldson
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.
Now 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.