The War Within, Stephen R. Donaldson (Berkley 978-0-399-58616-3, $28.00, 564pp, hc) April 2019.
Steven R. Donaldson has been putting his characters through hell for decades. The War Within, the second volume of The Great God’s War, does not provide any relief.
This book is set 20 years after the first volume. Prince Bifalt married Princess Estie, and they’ve become the rulers of their respective kingdoms, Belleger and Amika, working together to produce a defense for when the expected invaders will run through their countries to destroy the Last Repository, the great library which contains all mystic knowledge. It’s taken a toll on each of them and all their friends. Bifalt still can’t stand Magisters (the equivalent of sorcerers, who each control one of the elemental magics). The magics can be destructive or constructive, but Bifalt doesn’t actually care. The major plot twist here: Estie turns out to have some sort of power, but nobody will say what it is, and the forces of the Great God Rile are trying to undermine the King and both kingdoms.
Donaldson does some things very well in this series, and some things inexplicably badly. Bifalt is an excellent example of someone who is becoming wiser over time – though slowly, and with major difficulty. Where Thomas Covenant overcame his imposter syndrome to actually get something done in Donaldson’s early books (with the same kind of difficulty), Bifalt is overcoming his own chauvinism and hatred of the enemy (Amika). Showing people having this kind of learning is important in today’s politically divided world.
Regrettably, Donaldson’s names for his cultures and characters are confusing and even misleading. Two very similar kingdoms are given Latinate names that imply their cultures are quite different (Belleger/belligerent and Amika/amicable), which is needlessly confusing. Brace yourself for characters with similarly distracting names. It’s a big weak point – and completely irrelevant to the story.
If you’ve liked Donaldson in the past, and can get past the nomenclature issues, you’ll like this series.
This review and more like it in the May 2019 issue of Locus.
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