The nations of Belleger and Amika have been at war for generations, the animosity so distant in the past nobody can really remember how it began. When one day all forms of sorcery (the ‘decimates’) inexplicably disappear – and with them Belleger’s ability to manufacture the rifles beginning to give them the edge over their opponent’s war mages – Prince Bifalt embarks upon an epic quest to find answers and save his people.
Best known for fantasy saga The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Stephen Donaldson begins a new trilogy entitled The Great God’s War. While Seventh Decimate’s protagonist is not quite as wholly detestable as the whining nihilistic rapist who starred in Donaldson’s magnum opus, his is still a bland and unsympathetic viewpoint to follow. His sole defining character trait is his hatred for his enemies, an issue at which he impotently seethes for much of the story. Such has been his cloistered and blinkered existence he knows very little about anything else, yet is also so cluelessly arrogant he believes anything he doesn’t understand is a direct mockery of him.
Donaldson’s penchant for word play as subtle as a sack of wet cement to the face means the series’ Big Twist is made apparent after barely a dozen pages, and later is all but spelled out before likely being revealed in a subsequent volume. In the book’s short length we are subjected to ye-olde-timey pseudo-medieval dialogue that few fantasy writers bother with any more, along with laboured metaphors, unnecessary similes, similes that compare a situation to itself, lines of dialogue tediously repeated in a failed attempt to afford them retrospective wisdom, and worldbuilding concepts spelled out with the presumption the reader is too stupid to work it out for themselves.
Bifalt embarks upon his journey with a band of companions, and you might be able to tell them apart if you memorise the sentence of characterisation each of them was granted in an introductory infodump, but by and large as the book progresses and one by one they fall in various meaningless skirmishes, it remains unclear exactly how many of them are actually still alive, never mind which one of them it is currently speaking in a voice that in no way distinguishes him from any of the others.
Seventh Decimate is reminiscent of the pulp fantasy of the ‘70s, where slim books were heavy with ideas and action but light on characterisation and plot development, but in this case is also utterly devoid of the wild entertainment that was packed into their limited page count. The experience is akin to reading something Michael Moorcock might have churned out on really bad day when he just couldn’t be bothered, leaving the feeling that perhaps you shouldn’t have either.
SEVENTH DECIMATE / AUTHOR: STEPHEN DONALDSON / PUBLISHER: GOLLANCZ / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW