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Shadowhawk reviews the third Terra Incognita novel by Kevin J. Anderson, which was nominated for the David Gemmell Legend Awards this year.
“Lots of magic, lots of monsters, lots of startling revelations and very bittersweet.” ~The Founding Fields
So finally I am able to get to the novel that began the whole interest in the Terra Incognita series: The Key to Creation, the final novel of this big trilogy about sailing adventures, exploration, mythical monsters, lost lands, religious crusades, fanaticism, gods and crises of faith. It has been quite a ride too and to call the series a saga wouldn’t be too far off the mark either.
By now, as I was about to start reading the final installment, I knew exactly what I was in store for me. The Map of All Things had set up things nicely by the time it ended and the future for the characters and the war-torn lands of Uraba and Tierra alike was all murky and uncertain. Events had been building up gradually, forecasting that there was about to be some big throwdown and the inevitable full-scale clash between the two nations was about to become a reality. Not to mention that the Dyscovera and the Al-Orizin had finally set sail and were well on their way to discovering the fabled, mythical land of Terravitae, the home of the god Ondun and his three sons, Urec, Aiden and Joron.
At this point it would be somewhat distracting and inconsiderate of me to talk about the narrative style that Mr. Anderson has used in his Terra Incognita novels. It is what it is, and I’ve grown used to it, although I still am against it. However, even beyond being used to it by now, I didn’t really mind it as much this time around. I was quite caught up in the characters and the plot itself to really care about the style. Especially towards the last third of the novel where the style really, really ramped up the pacing and gave me a downright incredible suspenseful reading experience. I burned through the last 150 or so pages faster than I’d read them for the last two novels. That was a good improvement. The sense of excitement in the climax this time around was much more atmospheric and much more enjoyable.
The characters still continued to puzzle me at times however. The main culprits here being the usual ones: Anjine, Mateo and Omra. Mateo gets much more tolerable in the climax but really, I was actually wondering if these three were sane at all. They flipflop in their feelings and their actions too much. It is almost as if they just don’t learn from the mistakes that their predecessors have made and the ones that they themselves have made. They are impulsive, headstrong, unwilling to listen to reason and unbelievable intractable at times. It is a lamentable trait for the novels but again, it is what it is. The self-sacrifice and the good-of-the-state ideals only go so far for me until they become unrealistic. These three characters, most of all in the entire novel, suffered from this repeatedly, as if they had no true will of their own and had to bow down to the wishes of their people and what was expected them.
But, characters like Criston, Istar/Adrea, Asaddan, Ciarlo and a handful of others balanced it all out. They were the most sympathetic, credible and true-to-themselves characters for me. Criston has a really compelling arc across the trilogy, one that is somewhat mirrored by his former wife Adrea as the two struggle to make sense of a life without each other. The sympathetic magic that links the two of them together, strands of Adrea’s hair that she gave to him when he set out aboard his first proper voyage aboard the Luminara, was a really heartfelt miniplot, one that I really enjoyed. Quite an emotional one too. Seeing how the two resolves their new lives is almost heartbreaking. I wish it had been written differently but sometimes, a writer just has to do things a certain way. I certainly appreciate what Mr. Anderson did with them. Prester Hannes also gets a mention here, that slimy good-for-nothing preacher!
Asaddan was also a real surprise. To see him challenge the beliefs of his allies, the Urecari, and be a true force for change in the world. I was literally cheering for him all the way. And that was mostly because he truly made a point to listen to both sides of the conflict rather than taking the Urabans at their word that the Tierrans were all murderers and criminals and what not. In him, a delightful character was created. I wish we had been able to see more of him.
Ciarlo, poor Ciarlo. For me, he epitomised what it means to have complete faith in your religion’s teachings and yet be open to change. More than either Omra, Anjine or Mateo, he was truly central to how the narrative progresses, because just like Asaddan, he was a force for change in the world. Fantastic character who shines in all his scenes in The Key to Creation.
The world-building that we have been treated to in the first two novels really comes to a clash in The Key to Creation. In a mostly good way that is. It would be no spoiler to say that the Dyscovera and the Al-Orizin do actually find new and strange lands in their search for Terravitae, each different from the last. We have had a lot of hint-dropping and name-dropping over the course of The Edge of the World and The Map of All Things, so to finally see the unveiling of it all was nice. As I had been suspecting since the later stages of the first novel, what the Urecari and the Aidenists believe is not necessarily the truth.
To sum it up, I think the author handled that part fairly well, but the tone was a little too incidental and matter-of-fact to me. It lacked a certain mystery to it, a sense of true excitement that you would get when something totally unexpected (for the characters) happens and it leaves you (the reader) with a jaw that is handing a foot down from where it should be. Too casual perhaps. But still, handled well because it was not a cliched style. There were additions to the religious lore of the Urabans and Tierrans that did leave me somewhat stunned at times. A little bit of mixed signals overall, but handled well enough. Mr. Anderson gets +2 to agility for that.
What I didn’t really like about it however, were some of the monsters. They didn’t really exude any sense of danger as in it would make you go “oh shit they are gonna die, they are done for, finito!” in this really deep, heavy, bass voice. They were all interesting concepts, but the execution was a bit off. Still, the Leviathan does take the cake for being quite badass. Takes a lot to put that one down!
Overall, the pacing of the novel was much more consistent than in the previous two novels, although some characters did end up getting left in the waiting room for too long while others took the centerstage. Like I said earlier, the last third of the novel really clicks together though and everyone is given roughly equal page-time. You do feel like this is the big event that is going to change the characters forever and that the status quo is pretty much going out the window. Good stuff.
As expected, there was also a lot of magic involved here, not in the least because of the true nature of the fabled Key to Creation itself. My, my, Saan and his crew aboard the Al-Orizin really got a big surprise thrown their way in that regard! I really liked how Mr. Anderson kept the magic to be magic that fuels the narrative in a balanced way rather than coming across as heavy-handed and big-boom-boom-stuff.
Overall, The Key to Creation is a novel that is a great and worthy end to the series. Several of the plot threads that are introduced in the previous novels are all resolved in fantastic ways and almost nothing ends up as you’d really expect. The ending, the ending ending, leaves something to be desired however because of how sudden it is. As a friend of mine described it to me, it was a little like cheating. I didn’t get quite get that from the climax but it was close. More could certainly have been written here to give everything a good, proper closure, but I’m not too fussed with it. Things are wrapped up nicely enough. I don’t recall for sure, but pretty much all the mysteries of the world that we’ve been teased with are explained, in one way or another. And I like that. It made it all a good, proper closure.