Somewhere between the title of the book and the fact that it is a fantasy setting, I became convinced that The Edge of the World was set in a world that is literally flat, with a ship that literally sails off the edge. This mistaken perception is entirely my fault, and it quickly became obvious that I was wrong when I began reading the book. Just thought I would warn you in case you laboured under the same generous delusion as I did.
Instead, The Edge of the World is one of the lazier stories I've read this year. I mean, Kevin J. Anderson has himself a world with frelling sea serpents. That's badass, man! And what does he choose to do with this storytelling boon? He squanders it on a pathetic, poorly-conceived religious war that stretches on for fifteen years.
And not. A Single Thing. Happens.
Your "obvious hyperbole" alarm should be ringing by now, but I am not exaggerating too much. The Edge of the World is a long but quick read because almost nothing of any interest or importance happens in the story. Characters live and grow older. Some of them die. Some fall in love, give birth, raise children. But none of it really seems to matter.
The problem lies with the central conflict, which is so contrived that I can't take it seriously. The two major religions of the known world happen to be distributed by continent, so that the Tierrans worship Aiden and the Urabans worship Urec. An accidental fire burns down their mutually holy city, Ishalem, sparking a war between the two continents/religions. Well, not exactly a war. More like a state of mutual aggression. Both sides commit atrocities, build navies, and do some raiding of fishing villages. But neither side's leader seems to have any desire to prosecute the war to any extent. Anderson does his best to make both leaders sympathetic, multi-dimensional characters. Unlike their followers, who do their best to imitate mindless zealots and stereotype the other side as inhuman, heretical monsters, these leaders are rational men who know that both Tierra and Uraba benefit more from peace than war. It just seems, thanks to the actions of various subordinates and serendipity itself, like they have no choice in the matter.
Anderson seems to trying to comment on how easily religion can be twisted for political purposes, as well as emphasize the horrors of blind hatred at the hands of the masses. There are some truly terrifying moments when the Aidenists or the Urecari commit one atrocity or another against their heinous enemies. Ultimately, however, I don't care about either side in this religious war, because Anderson does not spend enough time making his religions convincing. Like his people, the religions themselves are paper-thin caricatures of the real thing, designed only to further the plot. This undermines their ability to make any grand point about the horrors of religious war.
It is tempting to blame this on the multitude of characters and viewpoints Anderson makes available to us. There are so many characters and so many subplots, and we jump from one to another so quickly that it is difficult to become invested in any one plot. But Anderson does the same thing in his Saga of Seven Suns series, and it's not a deal-breaker there. No, the real problems with his religious war are timing and realism.
Are we supposed to believe that the Aidenists and Urecari have lived on adjacent continents for centuries yet are ignorant of each other's societies? That's absurd. Either they would have already gone to war, or the degree of interaction between the two continents would be far greater than it is at the beginning of this book. Instead, the Tierrans and Urabans know almost nothing about each other, despite their proximity and the fact that we know the former, at least, love to trade at Uraban ports. That's not how societies work, and Anderson never offers any explanations for how such an unlikely stasis could persist.
Yet persist it does, even against Anderson's attempts at exploration. For a book called The Edge of the World, most of the action takes place on the continents of Tierra and Uraba, with precious little exploration being done. The first time the King of Tierra sends a ship out to explore the vast unknown, it gets unceremoniously wrecked by a Leviathan (which is awesome). The second time he does this, the ship doesn't even get out of port. The only real discovery that happens in this book is the result of a journey across a desert to this world's equivalent of the Far East and the Mongol Empire.
With that second failure at an exploratory expedition on Tierra's part, my enjoyment of this book really soured. Criston Vora, the only survivor of the first expedition, shows up after a decade of self-imposed hermitage just so he can go on the second voyage. And what happens? He watches the arkship burn. Harsh. I felt as if Anderson had crossed the line between confronting his characters with adversity and smacking them against a brick wall. Seriously, what is the point of making me read about not one but two expeditions that go nowhere? The loss of the first ship was fine, but with the second ship's loss, I started to wonder if Anderson really wanted to explore the rest of his world. He seems content enough, at least for the majority of the book, to spend time not waging his silly little war.
So as a book of exciting exploration and adventures, The Edge of the World is a huge disappointment. And as a book of an intense religious war filled with moral ambiguity, insane priests who think their job is to go about burning churches, and depressed sailors, The Edge of the World still manages to be bland and boring. I found the political machinations just as predictable as I found the lack of exploration surprising.
I have only mentioned one character, Criston, in this entire review. That's not to say that Criston is the only important or noteworthy character; many of the main characters are struggling to do the best they can with the plot Anderson hands to them. Criston merely served to demonstrate a point for me; otherwise, I would not have mentioned him at all. For if there is one thing I want you to walk away with from this review, it is an understanding that this book is so mired in generalities that it almost feels like it was pulled from a random story generator.
Kevin J. Anderson has never impressed me with his characterization before, and he has not changed that opinion here. I don't mean to indict him just for The Edge of the World, because even though it is an unsatisfying read, I can still tell it is a sincere effort. So yeah, you do get points for trying, but that's not nearly enough.
Some books are better left unexplored, not because they are so bad they're good or so bad they're bad but because they're so bland they aren't worth your time.