The Final Encyclopedia (1984) is a departure in, if nothing else, sheer size, easily three times that of the previous novels. This will, for better or worse, remain a feature. None of the following books are quite this big, (in fact, when The Final Encyclopedia was reissued, it was split into two volumes) but none are the slim mass market paperbacks we saw previously.
The universe as a whole has changed significantly. A Mafia-like group called the Others, consisting of crossbreeds among the Splinter Cultures, has taken over all of the worlds except for the Earth, the Dorsai, and the two Exotic worlds. The Final Encyclopedia has been launched into Earth orbit, and seems to be the only force resisting the Others.
The story begins on Earth at the home of Hal Mayne. He's a teenaged boy with a mysterious history: at the age of two, Hal was found alone in a spaceship in Earth orbit, with instructions that the proceeds from selling the ship were to be used to hire three tutors to raise him: a Dorsai, an Exotic, and a Friendly. (It occurs to me that the anagram for the three major Splinter Cultures is the letters found on the telephone key "3".) You would think that the ship's owner could be traced, and that that would be a clue to Hal's origin, (it's actually the same ship in which Donal Graeme disappeared almost a hundred years before) but apparently that was never done.
A group of Others, including their leader Dahno and his second-in-command Bleys Ahrens, take over Hal's home by force, as a place to hold a secret conference of Others stationed on Earth. The tutors, recognizing a threat to Hal, resist them violently (even the Exotic), and as a result all are killed. Hal manages to escape and runs away to the Final Encyclopedia.
At the Encyclopedia, Hal becomes the first person since Tam Olyn to hear the voices of humanity, and Tam's visit there (at the beginning of Soldier, Ask Not) is replayed, with Tam taking Mark Torre's place as the aging Director needing to find a successor, Hal taking Tam's place as the young man with other things on his mind, and a beautiful young Exotic woman names Ajela taking Lisa's place. Ajela is devoted to Tam and clearly attracted to Hal, and tries to persuade Tam to stay, but a conversation with the ghosts of his tutors convinces him that they want him to go to Coby to hide by becoming a miner there. Hal does just that, and spends years there, growing up, learning to understand and appreciate people, and eventually becoming an authority figure among the miners. This section is unique in the Cycle: it's set among regular people, who have no special talents or abilities other than having (to a greater or lesser degree) mastered mining skills. And where the rest of the Cycle has largely consisted of the protagonist meeting the same people repeatedly during his life, Hal never sees any of the Cobyans again after he leaves. Apparently they're of no ontogenetic importance.
After a few years, Hal, now a grown man, learns that Bleys Ahrens has tracked him to Coby, and he escapes to Harmony before he can be arrested. Even though the Others control Harmony's government, the semi-anarchy of the Friendly worlds means that there are still groups that resist the Others (considering them tools of Satan), and Hal joins one of them. It's commanded by Rukh Tamani, an (of course) beautiful young woman. Her second in command is James Child-of-God, an almost stereotypical religious fanatic. Their Command is fighting a guerilla war against the local, Other-backed, government. Hal, even though he has no military experience, has been tutored by a Dorsai all his life, and turns out to be quite talented. Hal gains both practical knowledge of military life and an appreciation of the power of Faith, leading up to a battle where a wounded James sacrifices himself to save the rest of the Command, and gives Hal his blessing before they depart.
Not long after this, Hal is captured by government forces. Bleys Ahrens comes to interrogate his group of prisoners, but fortunately doesn't recognize Hal. In prison, Hal has two visions. The first is of the death of James Child-of-God. In the second one, he's a child. The setting is the funeral of his uncle, also named James, who had been betrayed to his death by William of Ceta. His other two uncles, the dark one and the light one, are also there.
Hal escapes from prison, goes to the Exotic consulate, and is given passage to Mara. There he convinces the Exotics that they need to make common cause with the Dorsai to resist the Others, and he travels to the Dorsai world as their emissary. While there, he is drawn to visit the Graeme's house. All the Graemes are away, so instead he visits with their neighbor, Amanda Morgan (the third.) There they have an odd conversation, in which Hal identifies so strongly with Donal that he tells Amanda things that Hal should have had no way of knowing: that Donal had been the odd boy, that he always felt alone, that his marriage with Anea had been a mistake. The next day Amanda takes Hal to Graemehouse, and Hal seeing the graves (including Donal's) has another vision: in this one he is again Donal, this time grown and ready to set out on his first mission. (It's the first scene of Dorsai!.)
Amanda takes Hal to speak to the Grey Captains, the closest thing the Dorsai have to a planetary government. Hal tries to convince them to accept the Exotics' offer of an alliance, While many of them are convinced, they need more time to make a decision. Meanwhile Hal needs to go back to the Encyclopedia. On the way to the spaceport, Hal and Amanda admit to their mutual attraction, but the third Amanda makes the same decision that the second one had: duty comes before love.
At the Encyclopedia, Hal meets Ajela and Tam again, and tells them he's ready to start using the Encyclopedia to find a way to defeat the Others. Tam gives Hal some news: Dahno has died (presumably killed by Bleys), and Bleys is now mobilizing to conquer, economically and if need be militarily, the planets the Others don't yet control. Hal sets to work to defeat Bleys. About a year later, Hal has two visitors. The first is Amid, an Exotic he met on Mara, who has come to tell Hal that the Others' power has become unstoppable. The second is Bleys himself. Bleys offers Hal a chance to surrender peacefully, which Hal of course refuses. This is the first of several conversations between Hal and Bleys, in this book and the next, which are all similar. Bleys has a much stronger position, as ruler of most of the universe, and offers Hal a way to end the fighting, but Bleys is melancholy and isolated, convinced that the human race is doomed unless it chooses the precise path he's discovered that can save it. Hal, who doesn't have a concrete plan either to defeat Bleys in the short term or for humanity to progress in the longer term, resists Bleys through his optimism about humanity.
Hal now realizes that he needs someone with Rukh Tamani's charisma to convince the people of Earth to resist the Others. He travels to Harmony, only to find that she's been taken prisoner. Hal organizes a rescue, saving her from the torture she'd endured there, and sends her safely to Earth. Next, Hal returns to the Dorsai, where, in a cold rage at Rukh's treatment (again, his fault, just as Mor's had been), he lets his guard down enough for Amanda to realize who he really is. They have a long conversation, in which:
Amanda tells Hal she's decided she has room for him in her life. As powerful as the second Amanda's renunciation of Ian was to her, she now realizes that they become lovers late in their lives, when they were free to do so. Hal tells Amanda about having been Donal and then Paul Formain. He was driven to change humanity to become responsible for its decisions, so that tragedies like his uncle James's death would stop, but his mistake as both Donal and Paul was to try to impose that change, rather than help people to change themselves. It's taken him three lifetimes to learn enough empathy to correct that.
Oh, and they become lovers. It would be in the spirit of the Cycle for Donal-Paul-Hal and Amanda I/II/III to have missed each other twice and finally connected the third time around, but it doesn't quite work. Paul and Amanda I lived at roughly the same time, but there's no reason to think they knew each other, and while Amanda II would have known Donal, she was a generation older. It is true that Amanda III is the first one who realized she could mix love and responsibility, and that Hal, unlike Donal and Paul, has learned enough empathy to love someone. Oddly, in all the regrets Hal has for his previous mistakes, abandoning his wife (Anea) to widowhood isn't one of them.
The Grey Captains of the Dorsai agree to support Hal, and now he returns to Mara to address the Exotics. Bleys is there as well, and they have a sort of debate. Bleys goes first, trying to persuade the Exotics not to take sides between Hal and himself. Hal tells them that Bleys means stasis and death for humanity, and asks them to contribute all their financial resources as the Dorsai are contributing all of their military ones. They agree.
Hal now reveals his plan. He has the Encyclopedia technicians design a force-field large enough to encompass the Earth, and with his Dorsai pilots, his Exotic experts and ships, and his Friendly communicators, he will make the Earth (and the Encyclopedia) into a fortress from which he can resist and eventually defeat the Others. This means abandoning the Dorsai and Exotic worlds to he oppression of the Others, but he has no choice.
And now Bleys comes to the Encyclopedia for one last conversation. (That makes three, just as Satan tempted Christ three times.) Hal tells Bleys all the things he's discovered about him with intuitive logic: that while Bleys claims to be a mixture of all three Splinter Cultures, his real power, and that of the Others, comes from their Friendly-derived ability to persuade others to share their beliefs. That Bleys has had to hide his real agenda, which is to destroy the Younger Worlds and return humanity to the safe womb of the Earth, from the rest of the Others and especially from Dahno (whom Hal has figured out is his half-brother.)
In the final chapter, Hal receives a letter from Amanda, saying that she feels obligated to stay behind on the Younger Worlds, to help fight the oppression of the Others. He reaches out to her telepathically and finds that they can still be together mind to mind.
This is a very long book, though it never really drags. (Unfortunately, it's the last book about which I can say that.) Its centerpiece is the long conversation between Hal and Amanda, which for the first time lays out the plan of the entire Cycle. Amanda is older than Hal (which is in his early twenties), though of course not as old as Donal/Paul/Hal. Though since Donal "died" quite young, and was only Paul for a short time, and both Amanda I and II lived to be quite old, she's older if you count them. The result is that sometimes Hal seems older, when Amanda teases him about taking himself too seriously, and sometimes Amanda seems older, when she understands more about the difficulties they'll face as a couple. The previous Amandas learned more about love than Donal and Paul ever did.