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Literature / The Great God's War

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The kingdoms of Belleger and Amika have spent several centuries in a Forever War that has left them both in ruins. The original reasons for the conflict are only dimly remembered, but the Amikans seem determined to fight to the bitter end and the Bellegerins have no choice but to oblige them or be destroyed. Battles are made especially horrific through the presence of sorcerers, using the six Decimates of Fire, Lightning, Draught, Earthquake, Pestilence and Wind to deadly effect.

The Bellegerin are hoping to finally turn the tide through their recent invention of rifles, but before they can capitalise on their advantage, all sorcery in Belleger suddenly ceases to work — and new rifles can only be forged with the aid of the Decimate of Fire. Expecting a devastating attack at any time, the King of Belleger sends his son, Prince Bifalt, on a desperate mission for a legendary library said to contain the knowledge of the Seventh Decimate, a lost art that can nullify other sorcery.

The Great God's War is a Low Fantasy series by Stephen R. Donaldson consisting of three books. The first, Seventh Decimate, was published in 2017, while the second, The War Within, followed in 2019 and the third and final volume, The Killing God in 2022.

This series contains examples of:

  • A God Am I: The Great God Rile is probably just a super-powerful sorcerer, though he's Ambiguously Human enough to not make it entirely clear.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Estie is surprised when Rubia actually weeps for Smegin's death in the second novel, since he'd never given her any reason to care for him. Though as another character points out, he was the father of her children.
  • The Alcoholic: Bifalt's younger brother Lome spends all his time drinking and feeling sorry for himself. At one point, Bifalt asks him what his inner-most desire is and Lome can't come up with (or at least not admit to) a better answer than, "I want a drink."
  • Always Someone Better: Jaspid is an exceptional Master Swordsman who is at one point shown effortlessly winning a six-against-one training fight (while still having to hold back so as to not win too quickly for it to make a good demonstration). Near the end of The War Within he ends up fighting Lylin and gets beaten half to death. Before he recovers enough to tell anyone what happens, it's assumed that he must have been set upon by a huge gang of men, since it never occurs to anyone that a single opponent could have done this to him.
  • Anti-Hero: Bifalt in the first book is angry, self-righteous and hates sorcery and Amikans to a downright psychotic extent. What still makes him somewhat sympathetic is how devoted he is to saving his people. He gets more straightforwardly heroic in the second book, though he's still pretty neurotic.
  • Anti-Magic: The Seventh Decimate is used to block the other Decimates.
  • Arc Words: Are you ready?
  • Bald of Evil: Rile doesn't have a hair on his head.
  • Barbarian Tribe: The el-Algreb are boisterous horse warriors who seems to love nothing so much as fighting. They are smarter than they look, though.
  • Big Bad: The Great God Rile is the ultimate antagonist of the trilogy, being the enemy who the Respository fears and whose existence drives their manipulation of Belleger and Amika, and who ultimately invades in person in the later books.
  • Big Bad Wannabe: King Smegin of Amika talks the talk and certainly wields a lot of power as both a ruler and a sorcerer, even after he abdicates, but is ultimately disposed of decisively roughly two thirds of the way through the second book, with his plans having not amounted to much.
  • Black-and-White Morality: The second book has a much clearer divide between good and evil than the first, with Bifalt and his allies firmly good and the so-far-nameless Big Bad and King Smegin firmly evil. Marrow and his allies remain a bit on the grey side, though.
  • Both Sides Have a Point: It's easy to see why the sorcerers of the Last Repository find Bifalt so frustrating to deal with, and his opinion of them is strongly coloured by his hatred and pride. At the same time, Bifalt is not actually wrong in accusing them of being heavy-handed, arrogant and acting like they have an Omniscient Morality License.
  • Broken Ace: Two thirds of The War Within is spent having various people gush over how strong, wise and generally awesome King Bifalt is. Then we finally get some chapters from his point of view and it turns out that beneath it all, he's still the same messed-up kid he was in the first book, with an extra helping of trauma from how that one ended - he's just gotten a lot better at thinking before he talks.
  • Broken Pedestal: Estie grew up thinking that her father King Smegin was a great man doing harsh but necessary things for his country. The pedestal got thoroughly shattered when he proved willing to end the supposedly-necessary Forever War with Belleger and even marry her off to Prince Bifalt not to save lives or even to prepare for a foreign invasion to come, but just because he absolutely had to get his sorcery back.
  • Brought Down to Normal: Every Bellegerin sorcerer. Most do not take it well - Altimar has sunk into senility from the shock of it, and Slack claims that he's simply not a man anymore now that parts of his nature are denied to him.
  • Chastity Couple: At the start of the second book, Bifalt and Estie have married for nineteen years without touching each other, since Bifalt thinks he'd become unable to govern if they did anything.
  • Compelling Voice: The priests of the Great God Rile turn out to have this ability and use it to ruthless effect. It's later revealed to be the eight decimate, coercion.
  • The Corrupter: Amandis and Flamora team up on Elgart to be this. At least, that's how Bifalt sees it - the two women naturally have a different perspective.
    Amandis: I teach him to choose. She teaches him to love his life. Together, we teach him that only a man who loves his life can choose an honourable death.
  • Crapsack World: Belleger seems to consist almost solely of shell-shocked veterans and starving peasants. There are hints that Amika is no better off. note  Subverted as it turns out that the wider world is actually doing pretty well - it's just those two kingdoms that are suffering. The second book, which takes place after twenty years of peace, also shows that things have gotten a lot better.
  • Crystal Dragon Jesus: Subverted. The Great God Rile's religion uses some very Christian-like imagery, including their symbol being a cross with Rile's figure on it, but Rile himself is a Physical God and Sorcerous Overlord who doesn't much resemble typical depictions of Jesus in any way.
  • Cunning Linguist: Tchwee's innate understanding of language is so advanced that he only needs to hear a language spoken for a while to become able to speak it fluently himself. Or at least that's how he explains being able to speak the Bellegerin language despite claiming never to have heard of the country itself - it's not exactly clear how honest he is.
  • Dangerous Forbidden Technique: The Final Decimate, which lets a wielder cause tremendous destruction at the cost of destroying himself in the process.
  • Dark Action Girl: Amandis, devotee of the Spirit and self-proclaimed assassin. Her temper is unpleasant, her morals are uncertain, and she's very, very quick with a knife, to the point that Bifalt admits that if she decided to kill him, he'd have no way of stopping her.
  • Deconstructed Character Archetype: Marrow can be seen as one of the Trickster Mentor Chess Master types common in Donaldson's other works. Like them, he manipulates the heroes as part of a long-running feud against the villain, but his schemes are portrayed as needlessly cruel and usually not even all that effective, and pretty much everyone ends up hating him. Also, his ultimate goal isn't to save the world from Evil but to protect a priceless collection of rare books from a book-burning fanatic, which, while still broadly sympathetic, is a lot less obvious that it's worth so much pain and sacrifice.
  • Designated Girl Fight: The duel between Lylin and the Nuuri's Keeper in the second book is this In-Universe. Jaspid wants to fight in Lylin's stead, but is told that the matriarchal Nuuri see single combat as a female domain.
  • Driven to Suicide: King Smegin hangs himself after being stripped of his sorcery again in the second book.
  • Dwindling Party: Bifalt's original crew goes through a brutal process of attrition over the course of the first novel.
  • Exact Words: At one point Estie berates Facile (who's known to be a sorceress, but whose Decimate is unknown) for not using sorcery to help her. Facile irritably explains why each Decimate would have been unsuitable to the task, except maybe Lightning, and she doesn't have that one - leaving a startled Estie with the impression that Facile has all the other five. Of course, Facile never said that, only that she didn't have Lightning - it's eventually revealed that Facile has the Seventh Decimate, but she doesn't want anyone to know that since she prefers people to think that she could defend herself from physical violence if necessary.
  • Failure Hero: Bifalt spends the first book making the exact wrong choice at pretty much every single turn, something that he is bitterly aware of.
  • Fantasy Gun Control: Averted; the Bellegerins have developed not just gunpowder but clip-loaded rifles. The Amikans, meanwhile, make use of grenades. Later, cannons become available.
  • Fee Fi Faux Pas: Bifalt offends several of his hosts throughout the second half of the first book, starting with Set Ungabwey and his servants (who had just saved Bifalt and his remaining companions from certain death). Partly justified given that Bellegerin are complete strangers to the world outside of their own small country, but also not in that Bifalt almost always manages to go the extra mile in pissing people off while his companions do just fine. Played for Drama.
  • Fighting Your Friend: Marrow chooses Elgart as his champion against Bifalt. Bifalt surrenders and agrees to go along with Marrow's wishes rather than going through with this trope.
  • Forever War: One exists between Amika and Belleger. It supposedly started when the King of Amika murdered the woman who chose to marry his brother the King of Belleger instead of him. Or possibly it was the other way around. At this point no one is even sure anymore, or much cares.
  • The Good King: King Abbator seems to be highly respected by his people, and Prince Bifalt practically worships his father. In the second book, Bifalt has become this.
  • Good Shepherd: Third Father is consistently calm and kind and tries to understand people and see to their emotional needs. He also agrees to deliver a book on gun crafting to Belleger if Bifalt should die, even though he clearly thinks it's a terrible idea and even though it puts him at considerable risk, because it's part of his duties to deliver final messages from people about to die to their loved ones, and this technically counts as one.
  • Gray-and-Grey Morality: In the first book, Bifalt just wants to save his kingdom from Amika, but is willing to do things he considers dishonourable to succeed. The Amikans, meanwhile, are hinted to think of themselves as fighting a Guilt-Free Extermination War against a race of remorseless butchers. Marrow and the other Last Repository sorcerers want to end the war, but only so that Belleger and Amika can get ready to fight for them when the time comes - and they, too, consider their goal to be so inherently just that it makes any methods permissible.
  • Great Big Library of Everything: The Last Repository, the goal for Prince Bifalt's quest in the first book.
  • Handicapped Badass: Magister Rummage is a hunchback, and mute as well. That doesn't stop him from, with casual ease, injuring Bifalt so badly that he would have been crippled had he not received magical healing.
  • Harmony Versus Discipline: The teachings of the Great God Rile state that practical knowledge of the outside world is inherently suspect and that the pursuit of it leads to strife, whereas Truth (understanding and acceptance of your own inner nature) is holy and leads to true peace.
  • He-Man Woman Hater: Bartin has nothing but loathing for women. The theory among the rest of his squad is that his mother used to beat him too much.
  • Heroic Seductress: The devotees of the Flesh see themselves as this, using the skills of a courtesan in service of what they think is right. Whether they are this or the The Vamp of course depends on whether you agree with them on what is right.
  • Hidden Depths: Estie spent the first sixteen years of her life thinking her mother was an airhead. She eventually found out that Queen Rubia is actually pretty smart, and that the reason she occupied herself with meaningless things is because she was disgusted with her husband's policies but also knew he wouldn't suffer her to oppose him.
  • Hopeless War: The war Belleger and Amika is facing in the third book is downright ridiculously lopsided - the enemy has sent three different armies, each one more numerous than the defenders can reasonably resist. And that's without factoring in the difference in number and skill of sorcerers.
  • Horse of a Different Color: Rile's cavalry ride massive beasts that seem like some kind of cross between horses and boars.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Prince Bifalt, a jaded veteran who nevertheless genuinely wants to do what is best for his people, no matter what it may cost him.
  • Large and in Charge: The Great God Rile is described as being so big that he towers over people even when sitting down.
  • Loophole Abuse: Monks of the Cult of the Many offer, among their other spiritual services, to deliver final messages from people who are about to die to their loved ones. Said messages are usually verbal, but can also be written down. Bifalt asks Third Father to deliver Estervault's A Treatise on the Fabrication of Cannon Using Primitive Means to King Abbator if he should fall in the duel he's about to fight. Despite knowing that this would give Belleger the ability to complete destroy Amika, entirely against his own ideals and deisres, Third Father reluctantly agrees, because there's not actually any rule that specifies the length or content of a final message.
  • The Magic Goes Away: The first chapter proper starts with all sorcery having ceased to function in all of Belleger.
  • Meaningful Name: While Smegin brought his oldest daughter Estie up as his heir, he named his two younger daughters Demure and Immure as a not-too-subtle hint of what he expected of them. note 
  • The Medic: In the first novel, Nowel serves as the squad's "stitcher and bonesetter." This is also one of the reasons Slack is sent with the squad - they're supposed to cross a desert, meaning that they will suffer sunburn, and as a former Magister of Fire he's had a lot of practical experience with tending to burns.
  • Mercy Kill: The Amikans consider their practice of killing their own wounded with long-range sorcery to be this, assuming that the Bellegerins would submit them to Cold-Blooded Torture if they were ever captured. It's later subverted when it's revealed that while their king did think they'd be tortured if captured, he was less worried about their suffering and more worried about the Bellegerins torturing valuable information out of them.
  • Military Mage: Amikan and Bellegerin sorcerers get drafted en masse into the army whenever it's time for another battle in the Forever War between the two kingdoms. Their use falls pretty squarely into the Artillery category, with sorcerers being placed high up over the battlefield behind the lines so that they can rain down destruction on the enemy.
  • The Mole:
    • Slack in the first book.
    • Prince Lome in the second.
    • Tak Biondi in the third.
  • Mundane Utility: While sorcery is seen mainly as a weapon of war, in peacetime sorcerers put their talents to peaceful uses. For example, the Decimate of Pestilence can be used to cure disease rather than inflict it.
  • New Meat: Flisk is untested in war but was added to a squad of veterans for his talent with a rifle.
  • Oh, My Gods!: The phrase actually gets invented in the second book. Estie, who grew up with no knowledge that religion was even a thing but has now been hearing about it from missionaries, notes that saying "gods!" when you're upset is weirdly satisfying.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: Inverted. Belleger and Amika never developed even the concept of religion, and many people are bemused when missionaries turn up using strange words like "gods" and "priests." Others take to it in a big way, though.
  • Persecuted Intellectuals: The reason why the Last Repository is so well-hidden is (according to its not-entirely-trustworthy keepers, at least) that knowledge is a threat to tyrants and therefore someone is always trying to destroy it.
  • Power at a Price: While most sorcery just seems to require a native gift and some time spent training it, some have a price tag attached. Most notably, the ability to send your voice over great distances requires you to give up your hearing before you can use it.
  • Psycho Electro: Smegin seems to firmly believe that there is no problem that can't be solved by throwing lightning bolts at it. Rubia claims that while he believes he's mastered his gift, in truth he's been mastered by it.
  • Removing the Head or Destroying the Brain: A downplayed example. Rile's brainwashed shock troops can't feel pain, so shooting them anywhere but in the head doesn't slow them down much, at least in the short term. They'll still die eventually from lesser wounds, mind, but by that time they'll have killed the person who injured them.
  • Resurrective Immortality: Bifalt has it in the first book, courtesy of the sorcerers of the Last Repository needing him alive for now. Every time he should die, he just wakes up more or less unharmed. Ultimately subverted, as we learn in the third book that he was never actually killed, just magically shielded from most of his injuries but knocked unconscious by what got through the shield.
  • Sequel Hook: The first book ends on a hopeful note but without entirely providing closure, and with Bifalt vowing that one day he will humble the sorcerers of the Last Repository for their treatment of him. Also, there are apparently at least two more Decimates that no one has ever heard of.
  • Sinister Minister: Archpriest Makh, leader of the Church of the Great God Rile, preaches a suspect philosophy and has political aspirations towards some unknown goal. He also seems to wield (or at least channel) some sort of Wrong Context Magic that no one has ever heard of. His subordinate priests also have shades of this trope, though they seem to be Just Following Orders and may or may not be in on whatever it is Makh is planning.
  • Small, Secluded World: The Bellegerins are theoretically aware that the whole world does not consist of just them and the Amikans, but that's the only part they know anything about. The second half of the first novel deals heavily with the culture shock of Bifalt realising just how huge the world is, and how little his kingdom counts for in it.
  • Smug Snake: King Smegin in the second book thinks that he's an unstoppable force of nature and a credible threat to the Last Repository, and he kills, tortures and enslaves people on the general principle of "well, who's gonna stop me?" He gets Driven to Suicide after a single Last Repository sorcerer takes away his magic practically with a snap of her fingers. You'd think he'd remember they could do that, especially since that was why he hated them so much to start with, but, apparently...
  • Sorcerous Overlord: King Smegin was, for most of his reign, both the ruler of Amika and a Magister of Lightning.
  • The Spymaster: In the second book, Elgart has been appointed Belleger's Captain of Spies and spends his time watching for conspiracies and unrest.
  • Tiny Guy, Huge Girl:
    • The standard among the Nuuri, whose women are massive bruisers with large chests, each of whom commands a minor army of tiny husbands.
    • Magister Pillion and his wife.
  • Too Important to Walk: Set Ungabwey the caravan master does not leave his wagon, but sends Tchwee to speak for him outside of it. Bifalt's guess upon seeing him is that he's so fat that he actually can't walk anymore.
  • Training the Gift of Magic: Downplayed. A sorcerer has access to his or her powers from the moment they are awakened, but practice can increase precision and stamina considerably. Part of the reason why Belleger's and Amika's sorcerers are so outmatched by the enemy's in The Killing God is implied to be that most of them don't bother.
  • Unequal Rites: The Decimates turn out to be just one possible form of magic, with others existing elsewhere.
  • War Is Hell: Oh yes. The Bellegerins even call major battles against Amika "hells."
  • We Have Reserves: Rile in the third book is all about this trope. Justified in that he isn't waging a conventional war of conquest, but is only aiming to reach the Last Repository and destroy it. He doesn't care if there's anything left of his army by the time that's done, as long as it gets him there.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Prince Bifalt seems to spend most of the second half of the first book getting this treatment from every other character. Whether any of them are any better than him is hard to say, though.
  • Xanatos Gambit:
    • After being somewhat of an Idiot Hero throughout the book, Bifalt actually comes up with one of these in the end of Seventh Decimate. If he wins the duel, Marrow has promised to give him The Seventh Decimate, which he will then bring back to Belleger. If he loses, Third Father will be honour-bound to obey his last wish, which is that he brings A Treatise on the Fabrication of Cannon Using Primitive Means back to Belleger. As possessing either of those books will give Belleger an unstoppable tactical advantage, he can't lose as long as Marrow and Third Father both honour their word.
    • In The Killing God the el-Algreb manage to stop the advance of the Cleckin into Belleger with one. They launch constant lightning raids to steal the Cleckin's horses. The Cleckin can only protect their horses by staying put and taking a defensive stance, but then they'd of course have to stop advancing. Conversely, without horses to carry their supplies, they won't be able to maintain an offensive for long. The Cleckin end up having to retreat despite outnumbering the el-Algreb four to one.