The Edge of the World is the first book in the Terra Incognita trilogy by Kevin J. Anderson, well known author of many popular series science fiction novels including Dune (with Brian Herbert) and Star Wars. It tells the story of two nations at war, driven by religious fervor, with a spiral of revenge and vengeance as the backdrop for a tale of adventure and daring. Both nations seek to make discoveries that would shake the foundations of their civilizations.
A familiar struggle
While the world of Terra Incognita is itself an original construct, and the peoples of the nation-states of Uraba and Tierra and their geography are original as well, the cultures at play in this series seem… rather derivative. The central focus of the cultures in the book is their religions and faith. They have a common religious root and creation myth, but have diverged significantly in their practices in the present day, each dedicated in turn to the teachings of a different primary prophet and religious authority. Each one acknowledges the common roots their faiths share, yet they focus instead on the differences, each supremely confident in the correct interpretations of their faith over the others. The Tierrans follow Aiden and the sign of the fishhook, while the Urabans follow Urec and the palm-frond. A third culture, the Saedrans, live among both peoples but hold to their own customs and faith; they are generally regarded with both mild respect and mild distrust for that reason.
A trio of faiths and cultures from one religious root, sharing some beliefs but differing just enough from others to cause a great deal of friction; a culture living on the fringes of society, tolerated by both but a part of neither; the sharing of a holy city, sacred to all, each with their own claim to ‘rightful’ control. The similarities between the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish struggle for Jerusalem and the claims of supremacy of faith leaped out at me immediately. While there is nothing at all wrong with taking inspiration from history—Guy Gavriel Kay, my favorite author has done this to exceptional effect on more than one occasion—it does cause one to wonder if Anderson is making a political statement as well as telling a story, or if he simply took inspiration from a history that is rife with the intrigue and conflict his story needed.
A sense of the ridiculous
As the war between the Urabans and Tierrans rages over the course of many years—Anderson is also a fan of time lapses, years at a time in some cases—I found the primary sense of this conflict to be one of absurdity. At no stage of this war do the forces of Urec and Aiden meet in direct conflict. Instead we get years of one-sided attacks, massacres, terrorism and general violence. Every time peace seems in the offing, some idiot acts without orders or in exactly the wrong way at exactly the wrong time to prolong the conflict. Even with a medieval level of communications technology, it starts to strain the bounds of suspension of disbelief when yet another field commander decides he doesn’t need authorization, doing something stupid that only provokes reprisal after reprisal. There’s no Deus acting in the Machina that has been revealed to us yet, but direct interference is about the only way this makes sense.
Furthering this feeling that something else needs to be going on for it all to make sense is the form magic takes in this world. Both sides have a knowledge of magic that seems to function along the laws of sympathy (readers of Patrick Rothfuss are nodding their heads), and there is something legitimate functioning in this manner. At one point, a sympathetic model of an object does indeed reflect what is happening to the original object in a way that could not be coincidental, so it is working. However, it seems that not a single person in either nation in the entire history of their civilization has considered that a) this magic has offensive properties or b) acting upon the sympathetic models might also affect the objects. Nobody is blowing wind at model ships, nobody is building model houses to douse with water if their home catches fire, and nobody is creating effigies or voodoo dolls despite a massive war running for years. I think my primary criticism of the series, then, is that aspects of the story are not taken to their logical conclusions. Too many things seem to happen simply to keep the story going and not because it makes sense for them to happen, and it strains credulity just a little.
Not to give you the wrong idea
In spite of all of the above, I did actually enjoy this novel. It has interesting characters, a compelling plot, lots of action and adventure, and even a few sea serpents to liven things up. While the holy war overshadows much of the story, there are numerous smaller stories being told in front of the larger backdrop. We learn about a woman’s struggles to raise a child in a culture alien and threatening to her. We learn about an obsession with adventure and the need to see over the next horizon. We learn the trials of leadership in times of hardship and the pressures of coming into power too soon. Most importantly, there is a message of hope despite the dangers of a war that seems to never end.
Why should you read this book?
This is a book for the adventurer. If you want to read about exploration, ambition, and the willingness to risk everything to make a discovery that could change everything, then you will love this book. The world is well-made, the peoples and characters interesting, with enough depth to feel like you know and understand them, but not so much depth that the next time lapse leaves you angry you’ve left someone behind. Really, what it feels like is a fantasy novel written by a long-time science fiction novelist. The Edge of the World has enough worldbuilding to allow the reader to follow along with what’s happening, as well as a character-driven plot that leaves many of the driving characters feeling a little overshadowed by events larger than themselves, but intertwined together in a cohesive whole that never makes a subplot feel unnecessary or excessive.
While you may shake your head a time or two at the way things just happen to work out, just tell yourself that God works in mysterious ways, and three Gods are quite probably more mysterious still.