Wednesday, January 25, 2006

This Day All Gods Die, Stephen R. Donaldson

Title: This Day All Gods Die
Author: Stephen R. Donaldson
Rating: Great!

This Day All Gods Die is book five - the last book - of Donaldson's Gap series. I have reviewed the other four elsewhere (links provided below) but this review will cover the whole series, in addition to the final book. Having finished them all, I feel the need to review the entire series as a unit.

For the record, the books in the series are:
  1. The Gap Into Conflict: The Real Story, 220 pages, 20 page afterward, review link
  2. The Gap Into Vision: Forbidden Knowledge, 455 pages, review link
  3. The Gap Into Power: A Dark and Hungry God Arises, 518 pages, review link
  4. The Gap Into Madness: Chaos and Order, 674 pages, review link
  5. The Gap Into Ruin: This Day All Gods Die, 688 pages
About the last book itself: I think it is the best of all. Of course it benefits from being the volume that resolves the conflicts and lose ends, thus tying up the overall story. More importantly, the reader learns where the various characters wind up, and how they respond to their individual fates. Once I started reading it, I finished it all in just two days, despite other commitments. (In fact, I have to finish this review and then get back to the rest of my life, which I've left on hold for too long.)

Of the whole series, I have refined my thoughts about it over time. I called it a "space opera" in a previous review, and that is correct, but it's also misleading. The term fits because of the setting (space ships, faster than light drive, conflict in deep space, etc.) and characters (some of whom are well oversize, driven, conflicted, etc.). But there's much more to these novels than just telling a story about some people in space and their arguments.

Donaldson has a tendency to write about complex things. In my experience, he really hits on ethics and redemption. Hard. He hammers on his characters as they go through their story. Often they don't understand the forces and motivations driving them, so they have to discover (or make up) reasons for things as they go along. And all his major characters have significant flaws they must overcome, or not. They tend not to be "nice" people - not even remotely.

The Gap series follows that pattern. There are perhaps six or eight major characters, about whom we learn a lot and who we see change over time. There are another ten or so characters who we see in some detail, and who also grow, but we don't concentrate on them quite as much. Donaldson is telling the stories of those people - all of them, to some depth - as the whole story unfolds. It is the individual stories of those people that are really important. The overall plot is a vehicle or place where he can let his characters evolve and change.

Donaldson uses an interesting literary device in these books. The chapter titles are just the names of the characters. All they tell you is which person's point of view you're getting in each chapter. The story is linear, so in general the chapters don't overlap much. As a result, you see each character handle certain pivotal situations personally, rather than from outside. This makes the impacts of events more personal and gut wrenching for both the characters and the reader.

As I stated in my review of The Real Story, that book could be read as a stand alone tale. (It's almost short enough to be a novella.) However, of the five books, it is the weakest. And it is only the huge expansion on what we know about each of the characters that puts the needed perspective on that first novel. (I listed the number of pages in each book above just to give a sense of how much more story their is after that first book completes.)

I could quibble with a couple of nits in these books. Science fiction is hard to write in a way that will keep someone well trained in science happy all the time. And I think Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books are somewhat better, partly because they avoid those issues entirely by virtue of their fantasy setting.

That said, however, the Gap series does make the reader think about the gray areas of morality and ethics in much the same way that Covenant does. What does it mean when you have to do bad things to get a good result in the end? What if you have to use people - in the most horrific of ways - to achieve that end? Donaldson even approaches the question of possession here - something he dwells on at length in The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Is possession ever acceptable? And again, does the end ever justify the means?

In fact, I think Donaldson's questions around possession are better presented in the Gap series because I can imagine the devices he describes that allow possession actually being possible. Possession though magic is never going to happen, but possession though technology... now there is something that could become all too real.

I admire Donaldson immensely. His work is powerful stuff, and it takes some stomach to get through it. But coming out the other side is, for me, always transformative. I believe that is his intent. I think his goal - if he has one beyond simply telling the stories of his characters - is to make his readers think deeply about the ways people treat each other, in the hopes that we'll all be better at it in the end.

I strongly recommend these books, but if you start, you need to finish them all.