From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Book Review: The Edge of the World, by Kevin J. Anderson

Kevin J. Anderson is best known as a science fiction author with some forty novels to his credit. While not the first fantasy novel from Anderson, The Edge of the World is his first foray into fantasy in many years. In an interview tucked at the back of the volume Anderson compares The Edge of the World to his epic SF series Saga of the Seven Suns:

…it’s got a sprawling scope with many story lines, exotic lands (instead of planets), sailing ships instead of starships, sea serpents instead of aliens, a hint of magic instead of exotic technology, continents and religions clashing rather than planets and galactic empires. But although the “stage dressing” looks like our Age of Discovery rather than a far-future interstellar society, the characters and politics and dramas that make a grand story are the same

The Edge of the World takes two nations with historical enmity and initially offers a chance at the first true peace in many, many years. King Korastine of Tierra and Solden-Shah Imir of Uraba see a way to forge peace and possible friendship from distrust and intermittent war. Peace is close, until a fire burns away all chance at peace.

One thing which should be appreciated is that the spark of the war, the one action which wrecked the peace overtures, was an accident. It was not a malicious act perpetrated by either side. That a fire caused by carelessness was the root cause of the new wave of enmity is a good move on the part of Kevin Anderson. It is perhaps the single best decision made by Anderson in the novel. That this is the moment to return to as the best part of the novel is a sign of what is wrong with The Edge of the World.

Anderson sets up a world where there are essentially only two nations, two continents. The two nations, which have racial and societal differences even though they ultimately come from the same stock, are divided by geographic and religious boundaries. This is really where the differences begin and end. Perhaps this is the point. Their religion, which is at the core of all strife, is a mirror image of each other. This makes sense given that the religion is based on two explorer brother / gods, the founders of each nation. The strife goes back that far, over thousands of years.

This may be part of the point of what Anderson is doing with The Edge of the World, that despite a war which began long before anybody alive was a glimmer in their great-great-great-nearly-infinitely-great grandparents eyes, and despite a war which has reignited in their lifetimes, everybody is pretty much the same. Anderson tells the story of The Edge of the World with a variety of viewpoints from each land. He uses peasants and kings, soldiers and cartographers.

In the midst of all of the unhappiness, violence, and destruction is a sense of hope and a desire to explore the world. There are legends of Terravitae, their version of Eden, an island somewhere off in the unexplored distance. There are several expeditions to explore, to map the known world. In a world where there are really only two powers, the third leg is the Saedran people, a race not of nationbuilders but of mapmakers. They work as much as a guild as they do a racial culture. The Saedrans fiercely search for knowledge of the world, but jealously protect that knowledge so that they can sell their skills at great price.

There should be enough variation here to satisfy any reader, but the characters come across as cardboard, sounding the same and with little true personality jumping off the page.

The novel is written in a style reminiscent of the more juvenile gateway fantasies of the 1980’s – like a David Eddings novel without the humor. Kevin Anderson tells the reader what happened, what the characters feel, what everything means, and does so in a blunt manner. There is no gracefulness or subtlety to the prose of The Edge of the World. There is violence, there are very bad things which happen to characters, but nothing is told in such a graphic manner that most would feel uncomfortable with a twelve year old reading the novel. A couple of events / actions may push the envelope for a younger reader, but as a general rule, this would be perfectly appropriate for that younger fantasy reader.

It’s just not very good. On a technical level there is a degree of professional skill and craft far beyond what one would find from a similar self-published novel, but comparing Kevin Anderson’s work here to the masters of modern epic fantasy – Anderson falls short.

Still. Despite the plodding which occurred with the introduction, The Edge of the World is written in such a simple style that the novel is a quick read. It is not a satisfying read by any means, but at least it is quick. Given that this is a somewhat bloated 550 page novel, this is one of very few positives.

By the end the reader is left with some curiosity as to what happens next, but not nearly enough curiosity to actively seek out the second volume (The Map of all Things, forthcoming June 2010).

The Edge of the World
Kevin J. Anderson
Orbit: 2009
ISBN: 978-0-316-00418-3

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