The Gap Series - Stephen Donaldson
The Real Story
A Dark and Hungry God Arises
Chaos and Order
This Day All Gods Die
The Real Story is a book often to be found in second-hand bookshops. Hardly longer than a novella, it's an unpleasant but strangely sterile tale of a beautiful young cop abducted by one space pirate only to be rescued by another. In the afterword, Donaldson hints at future developments and particularly the fact that it was inspired by the apocalyptic gods and giants of Wagner's epic Ring cycle, but if I hadn't already been a fan of his, my copy might well have ended up back on the shelves of David's Bargain Bookshop with all the others. Luckily, I stuck with it, bought the next book and found that the story rapidly becomes bigger. MUCH bigger.
From its humble and constricted beginnings, the Gap series unfolds into a magnificent space opera of epic proportions, like the nine pounds of plutonium that create a 50-megatonne explosion*. In The Real Story all we really get to see is the inside of one small spaceship and the mind of one brutal pirate; Forbidden Knowledge has not only a shipful of pirates, but also an alien space station and the beginnings of some political intrigues back on Earth. A Dark And Hungry God Arises brings us further into these intrigues, where great and terrible factions engage in a deadly power-struggle and suicide bombers strike at the heart of government, while across the galaxy, aliens, cyborgs and illegals circle warily around each other on a bootleg shipyard in Forbidden Space, with humanity itself at stake... by the end of Chaos and Order, with its 5-way space battle among the asteroids and black holes of a binary system, you think it's gotten as big as it could possibly get, and yet it still manages to get even bigger for the explosive conclusion in book 5.
It's not only the plot that expands; the number of viewpoints also grows as the series progresses. The first book was almost entirely from the viewpoint of the antagonist, Angus, which made for some rather clumsy infodumping at times, but in subsequent books the tale was taken up by several other characters - at a rough count, by the end of the series we get around 20 different viewpoints, each of whom has their own complicated plot strand to unravel. A lot of the background detail is supplied in occasional "Ancilliary Documentation" chapters, giving us snippets such as the history of Earth's government and the alien trade agreements, as well as the more technical background of the gap drive, matter cannon, singularity grenades... some of this is probably unnecessary, but it works a lot better than trying to do the same thing with dialogue. "As you know, Bob..."
The multitude of viewpoints allows for a quite insanely complex plot, with shifting loyalties, conspiracies, backstabbing and misinformation; until the end, only the reader has the full picture, and the characters themselves have to guess the actions and motivations of their allies and enemies with only scanty information to go on. Again, this is just a much bigger version of the theme introduced in book 1, where the "real story" was much more complicated than you could guess from the surface events. One annoying thing about the multi-viewpoint device, however, is the way that every chapter seems to start with a recap of what that particular character knows and where they are at the time, but this is only something I noticed on my umpteenth reread so it's probably not that bad first time round.
Donaldson writes flawed and broken characters extremely well, and there are plenty of those here; the closest equivalent to his famous Thomas Covenant is probably Warden Dios (the "Wotan" character from Wagner) the head of humanity's police force, who, like Covenant, uses his guilt as a weapon. Lots of Donaldson's other favourite themes come up here too, notably the sanctity of free will and the evil of having it removed, which features in a lot of his writing and is a key plot point here. It's certainly not a preachy book, though, and the story takes priority over all.
It's always great to find a new series of books that's already been completed, avoiding the need to bite your fingernails for a year or two waiting for the next episode. That didn't quite happen with me; the Gap series was only complete up to book 4 by the time I read it, and I spent every Monday for several months scouring bookshops for the final instalment... which handily came out the day my Finals started, thanks guys! Of course, the whole series is now available, so you've got no excuse. Read this, and stick with it, cos once it gets going, it's great.
*This bit of physics comes from a quick Google search on megatonnage so may not actually be accurate...