Worldwaker is the fifth – and penultimate, apparently – entry in Dean F. Wilson’s Great Iron War series. It’s the story of a dystopian future where earth has been invaded and colonized by a race of “demons” – but, more accurately, it’s the story of the rebellion that’s fighting back against that occupation. In short, it’s a war series, although one that mixes elements of steampunk, dystopia, magic, and science-fiction into its storytelling.
But it’s also a story that’s evolved over the course of its length, and in generally good ways. Wilson has always anchored his book in his characters, allowing their motivations, conflicts, and personalities to be as important to the story as the military action. Whether it’s the morally shady hero Jacob, the noble but weary General Rommond, the cold Taberah, or many of the others, Wilson brings them to life, and allows them to be flawed, complicated, and heroic in equal measure. But as the series has continued, he’s allowed that not only for his heroes, but for his villains as well – and the series has really soared as a result.
Starting in the previous entry, Landquaker, Wilson began exploring life among the demons. But Worldwaker takes that to a new level, as our heroes are forced to strike a temporary treaty with the demons to stop a group from ending the world in a twisted effort to bring about peace. That changes the tone of things quite a bit, and forces the characters to see that it’s never as simple as we like to think. More than that, though, Wilson does something else new here, splitting his heroes up drastically, and following them through three very different settings, each of which gives us a window into life under the Regime that we haven’t gotten before. There’s a scene in a Regime rally, for instance, that’s truly gripping, and helps us understand what life is like for those not in the Resistance.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you don’t get the usual great action that Wilson delivers. His centerpiece here is an air battle that features men leaping from planes, air-boarding other craft, saving pilots who have been shot down, and all kinds of jaw-dropping feats that work somehow, thanks to Wilson’s writing and character work. More than that, it never feels overwhelming or confusing; instead, it feels coherent and beautifully staged, so that you can understand all of the various movements and tactics unfolding, and know exactly where everyone is at all times.
There’s definitely a sense that we’re entering the endgame of the series by this point, and that’s before Wilson starts bringing home the danger of the situation with some shocking deaths along the way. The Resistance is taking bolder actions, striking back harder, and making braver stands. But more than that, exhaustion is taking a toll on our heroes. They’re starting to question the fight, question their lives, and start thinking about what comes after. And it’s to Wilson’s credit that these are questions we genuinely want to see answered. After five books with these characters, I want some happy endings. I want Rommond and Brooklyn to find peace and calm. I want Whistler to figure out his place in the world. I want Jacob and Taberah to figure out a way to make it work. And while not all of those will happen – indeed, some of those can’t, by the end of this book – it’s to his credit that I’m invested in it and want to see it happen.
So bring on book six, Mr. Wilson. I’m excited to see how this all comes together.