BOOK REVIEW: Seventh Decimate

Stephen Donaldson Seventh Decimate

War is hell, especially when the sorcerers on either side of the trenches are causing a bloody stalemate that might mean the fighting lasts forever. The battle-weary Prince Bifalt would rather be rid of everyone with a pointy hat and a taste for tomes. But while the enemy’s mages keep killing his comrades, the magic-users on his own side are all that’s stopping his country dying a slow, painful death.

So what’s a loather of sorcery to do when all the mystical pilot-lights in the land are suddenly blown out?

Title: Seventh Decimate

Author: Stephen Donaldson

Publisher: Gollancz

Published: 17th November 2017

RRP: £16.99

The war between Amika and Belleger has raged for generations. Sorcerers from both sides rain destruction down on the battlefield, wielding the six deadly Decimates of fire, earth, wind, water, lightning, and pestilence.

But when Belleger’s sorcerers are mysteriously deprived their magical abilities, leaving them unable to defend against Amika, it looks like the end for the kingdom of Belleger.

Grasping at any chance to save his homeland, Prince Bifalt sets out on a hazardous journey as he pursues the one object that might be able to turn the tide of the endless war – a book entitled The Seventh Decimate

Stephen Donaldson is back.

It would be astonishing were any geek who knows their genre history not to have heard that name before. My review copy of Seventh Decimate proudly proclaims that Donaldson was the only fantasy author who outsold Tolkien during the 1980s. I’m not qualified to comment on what data Gollancz is using to back that statement up, but I wouldn’t bet against it being true. For all that many were turned off by Donaldson’s inelegant prose and treatment of sexual assault, The First and Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant took down enough forests to put Saruman to shame.

The key word in the above paragraph is “history”, though. White Gold Wielder, the conclusion to The Second Chronicles…, came out all the way back in 1983. Donaldson followed those two trilogies with the Mordant’s Need duology and the five books of The Gap Cycle. Neither did anything like as well as his previous work. Sales levels are a poor indicator of quality, obviously. Still, when Donaldson returned more than two decades after his last mega-hit with the first book in a third  Thomas Covenant series, his tone was pensive. Hell, it was almost apologetic, with him fretting in print over fears his writing wouldn’t be up to the challenge to making this final visit to his most famous fictional world actually work.

Fast forward another thirteen years to Seventh Decimate, the first book in Donaldson’s sixth genre series (his seventh overall). We’re now forty years on from the publication of his first novel, and Donaldson is now seventy. Given this, and the concerns he aired back in 2004, it seems fitting this latest book is about people who could once work magic, but may have lost that gift forever.

I don’t want to imply this is a self-pity packaged as literature. Donaldson is far too smart for that. In the past he’s described his writing process as combining something familiar with something very much not. In this case, Donaldson tells his tale of burned-out wizards through the eyes of someone who always hated them anyway. If this is an analogy for how time quietens an author’s muse, it’s being delivered via a man who thinks writers are terrible human beings.

Let’s talk more about our protagonist. Donaldson’s strength has always been to craft characters with clearly-defined goals, needs and beliefs, and to let the consequences of those qualities play out with ruthless logic. Prince Bifalt is a case in point. Some of his convictions are noble, others questionable, and some actively harmful. None of which is surprising. Bifalt is heir apparent to a feudal state bleeding itself dry in a war serving no obvious purpose. He wants to do what’s right, but his experiences as both prince and soldier prevent him understanding the needs of his own people. Add in his contradictory convictions about magic, and you have a simmering stew of anger, helplessness and resentment that Donaldson brings to the boil over the novel’s course. Bifalt isn’t exactly likeable – Donaldson’s powerful men usually aren’t. What he is, though, is entirely understandable, believably flawed, and genuinely interested in doing good.

He also has a brilliant name. Donaldson has always loved naming his characters according to their innate natures. Bifalt probably represents the furthest this approach can be taken. Our prince does indeed have two fundamental faults. First is his loathing of the entirety of Amika’s population. Bifalt’s dream end to the war isn’t a lasting peace, but the death of every single person in the country north of his own. Second is his belief that the ability of a sorcerer to kill their enemies from behind cover makes them abhorrent, no matter what else they aside from – or even instead of – making war. This is sloppy, dangerous thinking in any case, but the fact Bifalt can be so completely certain of this despite he himself being a rifleman really drives the point home.

So yes. Bifalt indeed. But the name also rhymes with “my fault”, which means it’s representative of his own faults, and marks himself out as the critic of Donaldson’s own work the narrative demands. It’s a fun bit of formal cleverness.

Is clever the same as good, though? This seems a pretty relevant question to ask. The whole story is about the nature and application of knowledge, and through Bifalt, Donaldson seems to be at least suggesting the answer to the question might be “no”. Having read Seventh Decimate, I’m not really all that close to figuring out what Donaldson’s ultimate answer might be. Which is fine, of course; there are still two books to come. This does highlight what is a problem here, however, which is that the novel is too slim to function tremendously well on its own terms. It is too clearly an introduction to a larger work. Again, there is nothing necessarily wrong with that, though for sure the hardback version of the book is pretty steeply priced for what you actually get.

This brevity also limits how usefully I can compare this book to Donaldson’s back catalogue. If I set it next to The Real Story, the last introduction to a multi-book series Donaldson produced with so modest a page-count, Seventh Decimate is somewhat less interesting structurally, but vastly more palatable. Beyond that, the only obvious comparison is in how much less purple the prose is here compared to the Covenant stories.

This is an important point. The simple language Donaldson uses here helps the story speak. Much of what it says is rather nice. There may be no obvious answers to the central question, but various other ideas surface throughout the story, bringing new questions and solutions up with them. Making Bifalt in particular ignorant both of the world outside his father’s kingdom and of the people who actually live inside it (TWO FAULTS!) is a particularly nice comment on how money, paradoxically, shrinks one’s horizons. There’s also some particularly cutting scenes early in the book, when Bifalt meets some peasants a few days east of the capital. He spends his time convinced there’s something odd about the people he’s encountering. He can’t put his finger on why, though, because it’s never occurred to him to bother getting to know the people he considers his to rule.

These aren’t the only neat flourishes the book offers, but you get the point. Whilst it might not be on par with Donaldson’s absolute best, then, there’s enough worth applauding in Seventh Decimate to make sure it’s far from his worst either. Yes, the slightness is frustrating and the ending is rather sudden and slightly pat. For sure you should be getting more change from a twenty quid note in exchange for acquiring it. Wait for the paperback though, or pick up a digital version, and I think you’ll find a book worth your time, whether you read it because of your history with Donaldson, or in spite of it.

Rating:  3.5/5

GS Reviewer: Ric Crossman

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