Book review: The War Within by Stephen Donaldson
The War Within: The Great God's War Book Two - Stephen Donaldson
The first book in the latest Stephen Donaldson epic The Great God's War played out along familiar fantasy fiction lines with little in the way of surprises, but there were signs - not least from the relative slimness of the book - that Seventh Decimate was just a prelude or pretext for a larger story to unfold. The War Within is indeed a rather more substantial book, or at least considerably longer that Seventh Decimate, and it does expand on there being more to this world than a long running war between the Amika and the Belleger, but it's still very serious and slow moving and not in any real hurry to get to any major developments.
In the first book, Seventh Decimate, the reason for the war between the Belleger and the Amika has long been forgotten or at least subject to very differing accounts. A crisis point however had been reached when the traditional means of sorcery or theurgy, the power of the Decimates used by Magisters to unleash lightning, earthquakes, famine etc. had mysteriously disappeared, and only one side had access to the secret of making gun. The crisis would lead Prince Bifalt of the Belleger across the desert to the Last Repository, a fabled library in the east that was said to contain the secret of the Seventh Decimate and restore the power of theurgy. Having made a hazardous journey, Bifalt however discovered that one of his enemies had also made the journey to look for the secret of building cannons.
What has become evident is that the war between the Amika and Belleger is indeed only a minor skirmish in the greater scheme of things, a war manipulated by the librarian Magister Sirjane Morrow for the sake of controlling the lands surrounding the Last Repository and protecting the future of the library that has endured for millennia. There is a serious threat coming and it is a grave one, the enemy as yet unknown and unseen but for some raids and scouting, but despite making efforts to secure borders and mountain passes, the Librarian still fears the indescribable might of the enemy and their determination to destroy the Last Repository.
The bigger picture might be a little clearer, the threat identified and the scale expanded, but Stephen Donaldson is in no great hurry to get to any destination in The War Within. He quickly establishes that Prince Bifalt has returned with Commander Forgule and forged an alliance between the Belleger and Amika that is somewhat uneasy but also unavoidable. The alliance is sealed with a marriage between the newly crowned King Bifalt and Queen Estie and work begins to combine forces to build a road to the Last Repository and secure a coastline that is so treacherous that it seems impossible that an attack could come from that front. Nevertheless, 19 years after Bifalt's quest, the threat from the enemy now seems imminent...
...but not too imminent. At least not for the next few hundred pages as Donaldson, having already established the situation, goes into detail to cover what has taken place all over again, and it doesn't appear to be anything of great note. The tone, taking a lead from Bifalt is serious and ponderous, the targets that Donaldson tackling appearing to be fairly broad swipes at war and religion, faith versus knowledge. Bifalt himself seems like a typical Donaldson character, like Thomas Covenant, sceptical of magic, burdened by the role he has been given no choice but to assume. On the other hand the detail might turn out to be more important than you at first think. Threats are mounting on all sides, but the greatest threat might come from within, and Donaldson takes the time to set out the principal characters and hint at other as yet unknown forces at work.
One of those factors, to go by the overall title of the series, could be the priests who have recently arrived in Amika and Belleger lands, servants of the Great God Rile, whose power and efforts to establish peace have an air of mystery and suspicion about them. There are several other threads and characters introduced, so it's by no means lacking in incident and there is purposeful progression, but still, even by Donaldson's standards, The War Within can be slow and heavy going. It doesn't look like Donaldson has yet come up with any new angle on the fantasy epic here, but he has created a compelling situation here and there's still clearly more to come.