A Review of Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter’s The Long War
It took me quite a while to get to this book, maybe a bit too long. I remember loving the first book of The Long Earth series, but it’s now nearly 4 years since I finished The Long Earth. And maybe my love for the first book of this series needs an update because The Long War, the second book of this series, definitely didn’t conjure up feelings of love from me. A fit of anger every 50 pages seems to be a better description of the feelings I hold for this book. Nevertheless, I managed to soldier through even if it took me unusually long between reviews. That’s not the fault of the book alone, a global pandemic certainly didn’t help my focus, but the book certainly had its part. So, without further ado, I’ll bring to you my explanation of why I am so angry with this book and why I still kept reading it to the bitter end.
The Physical Book
My 2014 Corgi Edition of this book, is a pretty standard paperback book. After a month of reading and at times abusing this book, the soft touch foil lamination started to fray off the cover’s paper at the bottom edges, but this is definitely not a remarkable book in this regard. A younger me would have probably destroyed the cover by peeling the lamination of completely at this point though.
As for the cover art, I think it continues the trend of being unremarkable. It’s not bad, it’s not great, but from the struggle I myself had with the art for this review, I know this book isn’t easy to translate into art, it’s to inconsistent to develop objects or scenes that would be striking or lastin in memory.
I think the world-building is truly the strongest suit of this book and the entire Long Earth series. The series is set on Earth around the 2040s, but in The Long Earth humanity at large learns to step into stepwise adjacent worlds, worlds that are similar to so-called datum earth, but took a different path in the probability tree that characterises earth’s geological history. And there are plenty of these worlds, to both the so-called East of the datum and to the so-called West of the Datum. Not all of these worlds are habitable, some are pretty lush places to settle.
These worlds are only shown in vignettes or broad descriptions, only certain places in the vastness of the Long Earth are visited or described. The singular places that are described feel real enough, but also don’t show much character necessarily.
This lack of character that plagues some of the worldbuilding, is even more rampant in the actual characters. As a sequel, this book, naturally, doesn’t have to put much effort into setting up new characters, but at few new characters are set up nevertheless making this book pretty large in scope of characters. This, of course, is an opportunity to represent a certain diversity of characters, but it also makes some of these new characters quite shallow or into mere plot-devices.
Spoilers for Specific Characters
Roberta Golding, for example, is set up as a young girl that just knows everything but has an absolute lack of empathy. She feels to me like she is coded as autistic, and her framing as the smart kid made me viscerally angry quite a few times. For most of the book, she’s accompanied by a group of minor characters that seem solely characterised by their Chinese nationality, which seems questionable to me to say the least. Not that any of her actions would matter for the plot of this book. Roberta isn’t even mentioned as a character in the list of characters for this book on its Wikipedia article.
The best addition to the cast of characters in this book is probably the priest Nelson Azikiwe, who represents a refreshingly unique perspective, even if his plotline also ends abruptly and without any character growth.
End of Character Spoilers
And this is probably the main problem with the characters. There are too many of them to give them all at least small but satisfying character arcs, and the structural issues of the plot, make even the character arcs of those lucky few, that are supposed to have development, end too abruptly.
And the plot is where the real issues lie. The plot is what made me hit myself with this book multiple times and once even made me throw it away in anger mostly for not resolving plot lines properly, what follows in the next few paragraphs contains spoilers, so be warned, but I can’t explain the structural issues properly without referencing how they end.
The main problem I see is that this book continually hints at something larger, some epic fight to come, some epic exploits to follow, but every time, the plot builds to the point where the reader is hooked, the plot isn’t resolved, but either you are sent into an unrelated chapter, things are fixed by the AI Lobsang in a Deus ex Machina fashion or, the plot is just resolved post facto, by a garden party where you get to know that everyone is alive and maybe a few hints as to what happened between the height of suspense and the narrative now.
As stated before this wrecks a lot of potential for character arcs. And while I understand that not every story necessarily needs characters that grow, there isn’t any big overarching mystery set up, except maybe the expectation of a war to come, that never arrives, and ends in a complete fake-out.
End of Plot- Spoilers
I think the amount of characters doesn’t make this easier, but I even struggle to summarise the plot without making obvious spoilers, because for the most part this book has characters in search of a plot, and if they find a piece of plot they are almost always robbed of concluding that plotline satisfactorily.
As for the writing style, this book again is pretty unremarkable, it’s reasonably well written but that just doesn’t overcome the structural issues with the plot or the assortment of characters to bring under one roof.
Now, would I recommend this book? Hell no! I know a few people who really were engrossed by the world-building and who really enjoy the whole series of books, but to me with hindsight even the first book had some of the issues of this book.
If you really like world-building this book might be a pretty enjoyable and rompy read, but don’t expect a good story. I think you can read it for the vignettes of worlds, but the book is absolutely bereft of growth. For the most part it’s characters in vague search of a plot and the titular long war that never comes.
My last book review was The Blue of Distance about Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. My last review of a fiction book was Who Let the Dogs out! about Wolfgang Schorlau’s Der Freie Hund. My next review, possibly about Terror Keep by Edgar Wallace.