That Anvil of Stars does not consistently live up to the heights of dramatic achievement met by its prequel, The Forge of God, should, I suppose, not be seen as surprising. Many sequels have a hard time living up, particularly when the book they follow is the author's masterpiece. And it is all too easy to be unfairly harsh in one's criticisms of a sequel, when the very nature of sequels all but insists that they be judged not on their own merits but against another book's. Anvil of Stars is a veritable minefield of storytelling disasters waiting to happen, and the fact that Bear manages to navigate safely around most of them is impressive indeed. But one cannot help wishing that the expectations set by Forge had been better met.
The story this time follows the tribulations — one can hardly call them "adventures" — of the crew of the Dawn Treader, consisting of 82 young adults chosen by the enigmatic Benefactors to avenge the wanton destruction of the Earth by the even more enigmatic Killers. The Killers have evidently struck before elsewhere in the universe, and the Benefactors have instituted the archly-titled Law that demands their extinction, to be carried out by the survivors of the planets they have destroyed. Immediately there is something just a little too Ender's Game for comfort about the premise of a group of children being separated from their homes and trained to destroy a race of alien invaders. But Bear's story sets its own course decisively enough that any real grounds for comparison between the two novels is effectively stifled.
Literary allusions abound — everyone from C. S. Lewis to Lewis Carroll to A. A. Milne to Peter Pan to the Bible is trotted out — as Bear tries to set the stage upon which his cast will play, and for a long time these allusions call such attention to themselves that they tend to bog the novel down in an artifice the more immediate and visceral Forge never suffered from. The young people on the Dawn Treader's crew refer to themselves as Lost Boys and Wendys, for no apparent reason. It is a literary allusion for its own sake. The democratically elected leader of the crew is called Pan, his second, Christopher Robin. At least Bear had the sense to put the brakes on before designating anyone Tinkerbell or Piglet.
Though it takes time to warm up to Bear's characters, he convincingly portrays the strained social dynamic they live within. Chosen for this voyage when they were but children — and though in their early twenties now, children is how they still refer to themselves — the memories of the home and the loved ones they lost still fresh in their minds, it's no wonder that this is a highly strung group of people. As the story opens we learn that a handful of them have already committed suicide.
The Dawn Treader comes upon a system they name Wormwood that, at long last, appears to the home of the Killers. But many of the ship's crew are already expressing open doubt about the motives and intentions of the Benefactors, and these suspicions come to a head when Wormwood turns out not only to be abandoned, but also to have been booby-trapped by technologies inconceivable in their advancement. When a number of the crew are killed in the assault on Wormwood — they are literally turned into antimatter — social disarray erupts among the survivors. Martin Gordon, the story's chief protagonist, resigns as Pan and his position is taken over by the impetuous and temperamental Hans. Meanwhile, the wallflower of the crew, a timid girl named Rosa, plainly goes mad, suffering quasi-religious visions that ultimately influence a core group of disaffected followers whose very presence threatens outright mutiny. Throughout, the intentions of the Benefactors — personified by the presense of impersonal, faceless robots called Moms — remain maddeningly elusive. Do the Benefactors have some inexplicable agenda they aren't revealing? The crew's discovery of another derelict Ship of the Law, whose crew literally destroyed themselves due to a complete breakdown of their social order, does nothing to heighten anyone's spirits.
If it sounds all a bit dour and heavy going, it is. Anvil of Stars is as weighty as its title implies. The story is overburdened at times by its own gravitas, and while it's never anything less than intelligent and sensitive in depicting the odyssey of its characters, it is a story more easily admired than enjoyed.
But the tale picks up when the Dawn Treader crew meet up with the Brothers, a curious race of aliens who are aboard their own Ship of the Law, on the same mission. The two crews join forces just as they come upon the system of Leviathan, where it looks as if the Killers may actually be residing this time. But the technologies present are so staggering that any hope of carrying out the Law seems woefully unrealistic.
The novels' final third is its strongest section, as Bear handles the multiple burgeoning conflicts with remarkable dexterity. The central moral issue at hand, the justice of carrying out the Law itself, is conveyed with an impressive lack of didacticism. What if, as it seems, the Killers have actually been extinct for millennia, and the species around Leviathan are their distant descendants, guilty of nothing but an association they aren't even aware of? Or could the entire Leviathan system be a big ruse, which the trap at Wormwood implies is possible? The book's final chapters are frought with an almost chaotic moral ambiguity that I found most appropriate to the book's themes. (Though, at the tail end, Bear pulls a rabbit out of his hat that manages to let both his characters and his readers off the hook to a large extent.)
But these considerable dramatic strengths are offset by some equally considerable shortcomings, mainly, that Anvil of Stars is an overlong, ponderous read for most of its length. Still, it challenges you in many ways, and if you are an admirer of The Forge of God, that is enough to recommend it.