The Warring States is the second book in Aidan Harte’s THE WAVE trilogy, coming after last year’s Irenicon, to which I gave a three-star rating recently. Unfortunately, I’d describe The Warring States as a bit of a step backwards, mostly due to pacing issues.
You can take a look at my review of Irenicon for the detailed back-story. Suffice to say here that the setting is a roughly alternative Renaissance Italy in a world where Christ was killed by Herod, and Mary (a far cry from Christianity’s Mary) becomes the progenitor of a religion; where Concord, not Rome became the imperialistic head of an Empire; and where Concord’s Master Engineer Bernoulli mastered a quasi-science/quasi-magic system of water magic, by which he overthrew the Curia and put the Engineer’s Guild into power and then used his new power to build the Empire. In Irenicon, we saw a former rival of Concord — the city of Rasenna — try to rise above its generations-old tradition of internecine fighting and throw off the imperial yoke. Half of The Warring States deals with the aftermath of Rasenna’s attempt and follows several of the same characters of that city as they try to gain allies and strengthen their readiness for the inevitable counter-attack by Concord. The other half of the sequel starts before the events of Irenicon, detailing the rise of a young boy — Torbidda — to First Apprentice (leader of Concord) and then his attempts to deal with the civil unrest caused by the events of Irenicon.
The introduction of a major new character into a series can be tricky, but Torbidda’s early story was actually my favorite part of The Warring States. It was tight, tense, vibrant, with strong side characters, such as a few of his friends and teachers, and a sense of high stakes at hand. Unfortunately, the latter half of his story slowed greatly, and at some point started to bend a bit under its own weight of plots and sub-plots, as well as the introduction of less successful characters. Pacing started to become a slight issue as Torbidda’s storyline began to lag here and there and also feel somewhat disjointed at times.
Still, I mostly enjoyed his sections. The real problem for me arose when we switched over to the Rasenna storyline. This plot thread really dragged for me and while I liked the concept behind it (the complexities and difficulties of trying to remake a culture and a government/economy), the execution had me often struggling to maintain a desire to keep reading. Characters that had been lively and/or intriguing in Irenicon, such as Pedro or Levi or Sofia herself seemed to have lost all luster or personality in The Warring States. Sofia especially felt almost wholly reactive, and her basic premise — a vessel for a child vis-à-vis a prophecy — to be honest, left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, though I’m willing to give see this as perhaps a “middle book” problem that will shift gears later. New characters meanwhile also lacked personality, feeling either flat or nearly non-existent — more props for plot than characters in their own right.
Plotting feels like it meanders far too long, moving at times to seemingly little purpose, and, in a reiteration of some of Irenicon’s problems, transitions between scenes can sometimes be abrupt or dislocating. Things pick up a bit toward the end, and there is an absolutely fascinating festival scene that I wish we could have lingered in and explored a bit more. It certainly shows a flash of Harte’s potential.
The Warring States does both broaden and deepen Harte’s world, as we travel to several cities. Unfortunately, none come as fully alive as Rasenna does in Irenicon. The history and religion come in more focus here via a similar technique to book one, where Harte somewhat clumsily at times used excerpts from a fictional history to fill in some backstory. Here, I think the historical text employed still feels a bit awkward and not greatly executed. The religious notes, however, are more deftly handled and, I’d argue, are much more intriguing in how they diverge from the story of Christianity and Judaism as we know it in our world. As, for instance, when Mary flees her pursuers into the highlands:
When she came upon them, Barabbas said unto Her, Woman, How did you find us, and how is it you are not afraid, for we are desperate men? And Mary answered, Because my murdered husband Josephus was one of your secret brethren. Here is his dagger. I would learn to use it for I too am desperate. Your cause is my cause. So she lived with them, learned their skills of disguise, dissimulation and assassination … Her deeds became known from Dan to Beer Sheva…
This is not your godmother’s Mary. I hope we get to see more of this backstory fleshed out in book three.
As for that third book, as mentioned, I struggled at times to keep reading The Warring States. I felt Irenicon was 50-100 pages too long, and the sequel feels far longer, despite not being all that many more pages. Beyond its length, it has several long sections that just feel too plodding, thanks partly to plot issues and partly to a dearth of fully formed or engaging characters. I said in my review of Irenicon that it was solid if not compelling, and just intriguing enough to have me interested in picking up book two. I admit to being less interested in continuing on to book three after The Warring States, though I’ll probably pick it up to at least write the review. Right now, I’d advise a holding pattern on starting the series to see if the final book is closer to the promise of the trilogy’s opener as opposed to more like The Warring States.