The War Within: The Great God’s War Book Two by Stephen Donaldson (book review).

The War Within’ is the sequel to ‘The Seventh Decimate’ and begins twenty years after the events of that book, so there are inevitable spoilers if you haven’t read book one yet. It showed Belleger and Amika, two lands in a state of perpetual war, both with sorcerers called Magisters with powers called Decimates, including fire, lightning, pestilence, wind, earthquake and drought.

Overnight, all these powers vanished and Prince Bifalt of Belleger went on a quest to the Last Repository, a library containing all the knowledge in the world, to get them back.

So here’s book two. A prologue sets out the big picture as Sirjane Marrow the blind librarian in the Last Repository meets with Set Umbagwey, trader and perhaps the richest man in the world. Umbagwey brings news that the expected invasion from a foreign horde may be coming even sooner than expected. The powers in the Last Repository have set up Belleger and Amika to form a defensive barricade against this invasion. The stage is being set for an epic battle but there are internal problems to deal with first.

Cut to Belleger, now allied with its ancient enemy, Amika, since Prince Bifalt married Princess Estie of that realm. Her father, King Smegin agreed to the match and the peace because the terms include the restoration of sorcerous powers to the Magisters and he wants his lightning back, even though he has to relinquish the throne in favour of his daughter. Now Bifalt is king in Belleger and Estie is queen of Amika but the marriage remains unconsummated because of his strong principles.

He won’t sleep with a woman who was forced to wed him to make a political alliance. She’s mad for him but can’t change his mind, even though she’s the most beautiful lady in any land. Doomed love has been at the heart of the romantic epic since Lancelot and Guinevere and Donaldson puts it across effectively.

King Bifalt is a grim, tormented soul. He hates Magisters and knows the Magisters of the Last Repository are using him and his people for their own ends, but to save his homeland from the coming invasion, he can only comply. There’s some conflict with Queen Estie over the allocation of resources as Bifalt wants men and materials to defend Belleger’s sea coast and she wants them to build a road to the Last Repository, a giant fortress as well as a library, so the people can flee there if necessary.

The contrast between the two countries is interesting. Belleger is almost spartan, partly due to poverty. Amika was richer overall, but the wealth was unevenly distributed. Poor people were kept in separate ghettos. Queen Estie taxes the merchants, builds better roads and houses for the poor and makes sure they have enough to live reasonably well. She’s some kind of pinko-liberal socialist and will surely come to a bad end.

There’s a strong supporting cast, too. Klamath, Bifold’s companion in book one, is now a general and charged with organising the army. Elgart, another former soldier, is now Bifalt’s spymaster, working with Magister Facile from the Last Repository who came to Belleger with them for reasons of her own. Elgart is particularly concerned with the Church of the Great God Rile, a religious order led by Archpriest Makh that preaches peace. Religion and gods are new to the people of Belleger and Amika, who never heard of the idea before.

This strikes me as odd because most primitive people come up with some notion of gods but the reasoning is that they had sorcery to account for the supernatural aspect of life. In any case, a cult preaching peace isn’t welcome when you’re gearing up for war, though it suits your enemy. The cult also give a double meaning to the book’s title because they preach about the war within a person between truth and faith, a rather abstract concept.

There’s far too much in this long novel to summarise easily. Donaldson begins the tale twenty years after the first book but shows the main events in between with flashback. The point of view shifts between several characters and each gets a long chapter to make your acquaintance. General Klamath, Queen Estie, Elgart the spymaster and Captain Heren Flisk, who is preparing the sea defences and others. Estie is the central character of this book and she faces plots, treachery, revelations and surprises aplenty along her path.

The pace is leisurely because Donaldson is more interested in character than breathless action scenes, though he does them well when necessary. You get to know the people. He writes in smooth, modern prose without jarring adjectives and backward sentences to add ‘style’ so the book is an easy, pleasant read and completely absorbing.

The middle segment is a tricky stage in any trilogy, but this one works well with further developments and revelations to keep the reader interested. If you have to wait years for the conclusion, it must be frustrating but, luckily, I have book three, ‘The Killing God’ to hand. Looking forward to it.

Eamonn Murphy

January 2023

(pub: Gollancz. 564 page hardback. Price: £20.00 (UK only). ISBN: 978-1-473-22170-3)

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