The Edge of The World by Kevin J. Anderson – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the first Terra Incognita novel by Kevin J. Anderson, a tale of adventure on the high seas, religious crusades, and the inevitability of politics.
“A rousing start full of promise and an engaging experience, The Edge of The World, still lacks something to make it truly spectacular.” ~The Founding Fields
Kevin J. Anderson is one of my favourite all-time authors. I read his Star Wars novels back in the day, and have read a fair bit of his Dune-verse novels that he has co-written with Frank Herbert’s son Brian Herbert, and I’ve loved every minute of them. This is a man who knows how to tell a proper story and delivers on a reading experience that is very captivating and intriguing. Which is why when I was offered a chance to do reviews for the David Gemmell Legend Awards, I jumped at the chance to review his third Terra Incognita novel, The Key To Creation. Of course, I didn’t quite realize at the time that this was part of a series so I had to go get the first two novels as well, The Edge of The World and The Map of All Things.
Midway through the third novel I am, the series so far has been a very interesting read, mostly because it is a very different sort of novel to what I usually read and what you usually get in fantasy fiction at least, from what I’ve seen over the years.
The Edge of The World is set in a world where the two opposing nations of Tierra and Uraba have long been at war with each other over religious differences, the former worshiping the deity Aiden, while the later worship his brother Urec. At the start, the rulers of the two nations are coming together to resolve their differences and sign a treaty at the holy city of Ishalem, the holiest of all places in the world. Matters take a turn for the worse faster than you can say “bugger” and then spiral into even worse straits faster than you can say “oops!”. From then on, it is unending war as either side looks to gain some measure of retribution and revenge against the other and establish its dominance over the world.
As I remarked earlier, this is a very different novel from what I’ve read over the long years and what is usually the norm in speculative fiction. The Edge of The World is firstly told from the viewpoint of dozens of characters, both large and small, almost all of which get to shine every now and then. It gives the novel a true feeling of a world-spanning saga because the cast is so big. We have kings, princes, generals, sea captains, chartsmen (ship navigators and mapmakers), priests (or presters as the Aidenists call them) and priestesses (as the Urecari call them), soldiers, slaves, traders, pirates, governors, conmen and many others.
Together, they all sketch out the world in significant detail, pulling the reader in hook, line and sinker. With such a large cast, I kept thinking that any time now Mr. Anderson would trip up and forget all about this character or that character but that never happened. The entire cast gets its time in the sun, and they are all significantly different from each other, whether it is their station or their dialogue or whatever else.
The main concern I have with the cast however is that, at times, they are very naive (even the best of them) and unrealistic. Given a war that drags on for years, little effort is ever made to reconcile differences and sue for peace. The status quo is pretty much as it is from the opening chapters, except that the problems for the characters continue to multiply like rabbits. This was a rather sore point with me actually since I’ve enjoyed Mr. Anderson’s character-building in his Star Wars and Dune-verse novels alike.
Speaking of the characters, another sore point with me was that the author often had a very careless attitude with them. Several times a few characters are built up quite nicely with promising futures but then they all just… die. Character death was a recurring tragedy in the novel that the survivors had to overcome, aside from all the general grittiness of the setting. It put me in mind of Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000, two settings that are sometimes so dark and grim that I could briefly consider Sauron or Palpatine to be the lesser of two evils.
A sore point yes, but in a way, it was also very realistic. Most tragedies are sudden and unexpected and totally random. Although I found Mr. Anderson’s particular approach to be over-used, it does connect you stronger with the characters who are going through these ups and downs. It creates a very strong sense of there being no absolute security. No one character is above this dark experience and in the end, it is just a strength of the novel.
The novel spans a period of several years as the Aidenists and Urecari engage in their bitter religious schism. The time jumps only showed how ridiculous the war between the two nations was because in all those years, they don’t really engage in any mass conflicts. Piracy, privateering, short naval engagements, raiding and what not, the war drags on. And on. And it drags on a little more. Don’t get me wrong, it all makes good in-universe sense since the rulers of the two nations are not that interested in open conflict and are mostly content with the occasional raids and spies and assassins, but it all came across as rather unrealistic.
There was a fantastic opportunity to depict a cross-continental war that spans years and generations, but it doesn’t happen much. The expectation was definitely there, its just that the characters weren’t all that interested in actual conflict. A downer for me, mostly because I would have absolutely loved to have read that.
Mr. Anderson’s world-building however, truly is quite good. The two nations and their ideologies and their customs and their cultures are vivid with enough similarities between them to make them come across as two parts of a larger whole, and they are distinct enough to be proper entities in their own right. And then there are the Saedrans themselves, another culture that inhabits both nations but is quite… neutral. Working as chartsmen, artists, healers and what not, they are a distinct, unique faction in their own and the author portrays all three quite well to come across as interesting and engaging. I’d have to say that I prefer the Saedrans to either the Aidenists or the Urecari but that’s mostly because the Saedrans are the nicest people in the entire novel.
The Edge of The World is very definitely a saga and not just any other story. That is part of the charm of it I suppose. With such a rich and varied cast, all the different sights and sounds of the world, the cultures, the monsters, the tragedies, and what not, Kevin J. Anderson has created something quite unique. What I really liked about the novel was that it had a good balance between adventures on land and adventures at sea. Few fantasy novels go into that territory so it was nice to see all of it and read it.
The pacing of the novel does leave something to be desired however. The chapters are all too short, sometimes only three or four pages, and there are constant shifts in POV since there is such a massive cast that is being used. Initially, it all comes across as unique and refreshing but by the time I was halfway through, I was really wishing for longer chapters. The reading was just a little too stilted for me. Sometimes the chapters ended quite abruptly, often times during a big tragedy, so it really wasn’t that comfortable a reading experience.
But strangely enough, the world that the author has created, the characters he has populated it with, and everything else that has gone into the unveiling of the narrative, it is all still highly compelling. Much as I wanted to, a lot of times I just could not put down the book! I had to keep reading because even though I often didn’t get a chance to connect with the characters as much as I wanted to, I still wanted to know what was going to happen to them next. I just had to!
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Kevin J. Anderson is such a great storyteller. He draws you in, hook, line and sinker.
So in ending, I would say that I would recommend the novel, with the caveat that this is a very different read to what you are usually reading and it is often times very nontraditional. There certainly is almost no magic in the novel! In this novel at least, it is very low-key and subtle. Nontraditional indeed.