The Key to Creation is the third and final installment of the Terra Incognita trilogy by Kevin J Anderson. You can also read the reviews of the first and second books, The Edge of the World and The Map of All Things.
A slightly different review
As this is the third book of a trilogy, with both previous installments also reviewed by me, it was becoming increasingly difficult to not simply repeat myself and basically end up publishing the same review three times. Additionally, since this is the third book in a series, I’m going to assume anybody reading this review has read the first two books, or if not, would obviously start with them based on the strength or weakness of the original two reviews. As a result, I’m instead going to format this as a retrospective of the trilogy as a whole, discussing what I think about the major things that happen.
NOTE: THERE ARE SIGNIFICANT SPOILER DETAILS FOR BOOK THREE IN THIS REVIEW. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO BE READ BEFORE THE THIRD BOOK, BUT READ AS A RETROSPECTIVE AFTER READING THE ENTIRE SERIES. IF YOU HAVE NOT READ THIS BOOK, DO NOT READ THIS REVIEW.
This is the war that doesn’t end
The overarching story event of this series is the holy war between the Urabans and the Tierrans, which starts as the result of a misunderstanding and runs for pretty much the entire lifetimes of the characters without any actual pitched battles between armies or any remotely serious attempt by anybody to end the war and bring about peace.
While I understand that a conflict provides a great backdrop for action, and religious wars have a way of spiraling out of control very quickly, they also have a way of burning out very quickly. War may be great for furthering the dogma, but it’s woefully bad for business when all your menfolk keep marching off to get murdered.
The problem I had with it in this series is there’s no actual warfare in this war, as mentioned above, just 20+ years of terrorist attacks, overwhelming ambushes, and one-sided sneak attacks—usually done without authorization, just making things worse. Additionally, beyond one event at the very start of the first book, nobody from either side makes even the most feeble attempt to work out their problems or to bring an end to the bloodshed. No back-room talks by diplomats who are above the bickering, no proposals or even outrageous demands from either side about what they’d require to stop fighting—nothing.
It felt so unrealistic throughout the entire series, the way absolutely everybody was on board with a battle to the death despite there being no actual battles to speak of. This eagerness to fight to the bitter end actually segues nicely into my next issue.
The deus ex machine gun
I’d mentioned in the previous reviews for the series that it sometimes felt like some sort of greater being must be secretly responsible for the way this holy war just would not end, and in fact managed to escalate for 20 full years, and while I couldn’t be further from the truth, the truth is actually much more problematic from a narrative standpoint.
The goal of the ships of exploration sent out by each side of this conflict is to find Terravitae—the place from which their Gods Aiden and Urec set out at the behest of their father, the creator God Ondun—each ship with the hopes of enlisting their God’s aid against the evil people of the other side.
They do, in fact, find Terravitae, and they do find Ondun, who is indeed an incredibly powerful being. However, he freely admits to not being the creator, and admits that he himself was part of a whole civilization who in turn had their own Gods that were yet more powerful. Faced with the truth of their God standing there saying “I’m not a god,” their response, I suppose, is somewhat understandable. They say, essentially, “We don’t care that you’re not God. Come pretend to be God and make everyone stop fighting,” and Ondun says, “Sure.”
What follows is, from a narrative standpoint, one of the worst endings I’ve ever read. “God” swoops in with noise and thunderbolts and says, “Kids, behave.” And these two peoples, firmly entrenched in the belief that theirs is the one true faith and that the other side are evil terrorists and animals little better than savages, peoples who have been warring for over 20 years in an ever-escalating series of atrocities, frown contritely and say “Yes Daddy, we’re sorry.” And the war ends.
Just like that.
The chapters following basically hold that up. Nobody tries to keep the war going, nobody even seems to particularly feel bad about it. They go, “Well, I’m still upset, you know, about the thousands of dead innocents, but the big angry man said to behave or he’d punish us, so we’d better do what he says.”
This is either an ironic slam in the face of monotheistic religions with a strict moral code or an incredibly problematic espousal of “Everyone should do what religion says out of fear of punishment.”
Why you should read this book
If you’ve read this far, you’ve already read this book or you aren’t planning to. For those of you that have already read it, I’m sure you see what I mean in this section from the previous reviews where I end up apologizing for sounding so critical, since I really enjoyed reading the books. The series is fun. The characters are interesting and engaging. The story is exciting. There’s Gods and Sea Monsters and Magic and Life and Death and Hope and Despair.
The problem, I think, is the recent prevalence of authors whose primary goal is consistency and believability (even in fantasy) and then weaving an interesting and entertaining story. This is not to say that there’s anything remotely wrong with reversing those goals, with writing a great engaging story and not worrying so much about how the disbelief is suspended.
Some of my favorite books are just a ripping good yarn. Some of the greatest books in fantasy are telling a story to tell a story and that’s that. This story actually puts me in mind of the Odyssey, possibly one of the first fantasy stories in Western Civilization, and hardly one to be criticized for being unrealistic.