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Book Review: "The Long War" by Pratchett and Baxter

Roughly 10 years after the events of The Long Earth, Joshua Valiante has put his days of exploration behind him. After his voyage into the distant reaches of the Long Earth—the seemingly infinite number of parallel worlds, the discovery of which set the series into motion—Joshua has settled down and married, having a child and even becoming the mayor of a small community on a parallel Earth. Of course, Joshua is still a famous figure in some circles—both for the help and guidance he offered to so many in the early days of Long Earth colonisation, and for his long distance expedition with the sentient A.I., Lobsang.

While he might still be a well-respected figure, though, it has begun to seem as though he is no longer really needed. In the years that have passed since the discovery of the Long Earth, the human-race has slowly adapted. Dirigibles capable of Stepping between one Earth and another, carrying both passengers and supplies, have now become common-place. Also, anti-nausea medication has been developed which effectively eliminates the only real downside to Stepping, for so many. Due to both of this developments, the human race has been able to spread further than ever before.

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The increased pace of colonisation does bring its own challenges, though. As those early days of wonder and exploration fade, the Long Earth has entered a period of growing political tension. Every nation of the original Earth, now called the Datum, has been forced to respond to these new challenges and opportunities, in their own way—and, their methods have, quite naturally, varied a great deal. The government of Datum America, for example, has sought to spread its influence out into the Long Earth—attempting to claim the resources of a seemingly infinite chain of parallel "Americas", and demanding taxes from those who settle there.

In response to this, the government of Datum America has been met with a great deal of opposition and resentment from those most distant colonies who, despite technically living on a parallel America, believe that the Datum American government does not provide enough support to justify the paying of taxes. Spearheading this particular movement is Valhalla, a thriving city-state that has been established far from the Datum Earth, which is the first to publicly and officially declare its independence.

While all of this is going on, though, one of Joshua's old travelling companions, Sally Linsay, suddenly re-enters his life to express her concerns about the mysterious creatures known as "trolls". The trolls were the human race's first contact with another intelligent race in the Long Earth—and, with their good-natured curiosity and their natural ability to Step, they have become useful allies for many settlements. However, their trusting nature has also left them open to exploitation and abuse. Sally believes that, with each act of cruelty committed against them, the trolls are losing their trust in the human race—abandoning human populated worlds and disappearing into the unknown reaches of the Long Earth. This is something which she believes will have dire consequences, in the long run—and so, she requests that Joshua investigate the matter.

While Joshua and Sally set out on their own separate journeys, the novel also introduces two additional plot-threads. Setting out from Datum America, Captain Maggie Kauffman and the crew of the USS Benjamin Franklin, representing America's new class of military grade dirigibles, are sent out on a long-term expedition to establish an American presence in the Long Earth. Meanwhile, in Datum China, the Chinese government has also set out to make its own mark on the Long Earth, with a long-range scientific expedition of its own.

Much like in the previous novel, Joshua still makes for a somewhat bland hero—though, to be fair, his new role as a loving husband and father does make him much more relatable than the stubborn loner we met in The Long Earth. Just like in the previous novel, though, Joshua also has the advantage of being paired with one of the book's most entertaining figures—in this case, Bill Lovell, a fellow explorer who may have seen more of the Long Earth than even Joshua, himself. However, while Joshua was clearly cast as the main protagonist of the previous novel, that no longer seems to be the case, here. He is still important to the story, of course—but, with a constantly widening cast of characters following their own plot-threads, the scope of the story seems to have broadened significantly.

Captain Maggie Kauffman and her crew, for example, quickly became one of the novel's true highlights, for me. Not only is Maggie, herself, a genuinely compelling character—but, she has an entertaining rapport with her entire crew that makes the portions of the novel focused on their exploits genuinely entertaining to read. On top of that, the situations that they manage to find themselves in, on their long-term expedition, are often genuinely fascinating.

Unfortunately, the same cannot really be said for the novel's other major new addition—Sally Linsay. While Sally is obviously intended to play an important role in the story, from this point forward, I also found her to be easily the most irritating character in the series. Abrasive and condescending, and prone to tossing out cheap and often entirely unwarranted insults, she quickly came to be the novel's greatest weak-point, for me. However, much like how Joshua's portions of the story are made more interesting through his partnership with Bill Lovell, Sally is made slightly more bearable through her own partnership with ex-cop, Monica Janssen—another of the novel's more interesting figures.

Much like with The Long Earth, it often feels as though the authors are more interesting in exploring their own ideas than they are in telling a focused story. The Long Earth remains a fascinating creation, though—and, it still provides many genuinely great moments as the novel's cast of characters explore its mysteries. There are enough moments of genuine wonder in The Long War that, despite whatever issues I may have had with the novel's occasional lack of focus or with certain additions to the cast of characters, I still finished this second novel eager to see how things might develop throughout the rest of the series.

© 2020 Dallas Matier