Seventh Decimate

If you've been following the Hotlist for a while, then you are aware that I've been a big Stephen R. Donaldson fan for about three decades. To this day, the first two Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and the Gap series rank among my favorite reads. Understandably, I rejoiced when it was announced that the author had signed a new book deal for a new sequence, The Great God's War trilogy. And though The Last Dark failed to bring The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant to a satisfying end, I was more than a little excited when I received my ARC of Seventh Decimate.

Advance reviews were so-so. Which isn't all that surprising given how divisive Donaldson can be among readers, and it did not influence my expectations.

About 50 pages into the novel, I knew I was in trouble. Considering that Donaldson is one of my favorite SFF authors of all time, my expectations were indeed high. Writing at the top of his game, Stephen R. Donaldson is seldom equaled and almost never surpassed. And when two of your series are considered genre classics, this is as it should be. To say that Seventh Decimate failed to live up to my expectations would be a gross understatement. How this novel could fall so short, I'll never know. Shockingly, it felt as though it had been written by someone else. It is by far the weakest Donaldson work to date.

Here's the blurb:

Fire. Wind. Pestilence. Earthquake. Drought. Lightning.

These are the six Decimates, wielded by sorcerers for both good and evil.

But a seventh Decimate exists—the most devastating one of all…

For centuries, the realms of Belleger and Amika have been at war, with sorcerers from both sides brandishing the Decimates to rain blood and pain upon their enemy. But somehow, in some way, the Amikans have discovered and invoked a seventh Decimate, one that strips all lesser sorcery of its power. And now the Bellegerins stand defenseless.

Prince Bifalt, eldest son of the Bellegerin King, would like to see the world wiped free of sorcerers. But it is he who is charged with finding the repository of all of their knowledge, to find the book of the seventh Decimate—and reverse the fate of his land.

All hope rests with Bifalt. But the legendary library, which may or may not exist, lies beyond an unforgiving desert and treacherous mountains—and beyond the borders of his own experience. Wracked by hunger and fatigue, sacrificing loyal men along the way, Bifalt will discover that there is a game being played by those far more powerful than he could ever imagine. And that he is nothing but a pawn…

Donaldson's narrative always conjures up vivid and magical images. I've said before that few speculative fiction authors can match Donaldson when it comes to creating an imagery that literally leaps off the page. His worldbuilding habitually is vast in scope and vision. Seventh Decimate is a relatively short and self-contained novel in which what little worldbuilding there is remains in the background. There are a few hints of a wider world beyond the desert and the ocean, but based solely on this book this new universe shows very little depth. Which was quite a disappointment coming from a man who has captured the imagination of millions of readers. The backdrop of this tale is a centuries-long conflict between two warring countries, Belleger and Amika. The former have mastered the fashioning of firearms to counter Amika's powerful and more numerous Magisters. This war has lasted for such a long time that no one on either side knows for sure what initially started it. When every sorceror in Belleger loses their magical abilities, leaving their nation vulnerable to the might of the Magisters, their only hope lies in a legendary book that contains knowledge which could allow them to make Amika's Magisters powerless and finally give them the chance to end the war forever. This tome is rumored to be found in the Last Repository, a mythical library said to exist beyond the boundaries of all known maps. And although the premise had potential, the poor execution and the lack of depth pretty much kill this one. For the most part, Seventh Decimate feels like an inflated short story or novella that can be big on ideas but that fails to deliver.

Characterization is a facet in which Donaldson usually excels and over his illustrious he has created many memorable protagonists. One would have thought that, in this aspect at least, the author would shine. And yet, the characterization found in Seventh Decimate is so flat and uninspired that it makes it well nigh impossible to get into the story. It falls on Prince Bifalt's shoulders to go on a quest to find the Last Repository and hopefully return with the knowledge to save his country. Trouble is, Bifalt is a bland, conceited, and stiff-necked fellow whose obsession is the destruction of magic. As hard as it is to believe, Bifalt is so unlikable that he makes Thomas Covenant endearing. There is no character growth to speak of and Bifalt remains as rigid in his obsession as a devout Jehovah's Witness. His inner monologues get old real fast and make him an extremely boring protagonist with no redeeming qualities. I understand what Donaldson is doing, that Bifalt is a self-centered shit and that this quest will change him in the long run, yada yada yada. But he takes center stage in Seventh Decimate and a more unappealing main protagonist through whose eyes we see events unfolds I couldn't name. The supporting cast is no better, made up of mostly unremarkable characters that bring little or nothing to the plot. Thinking back, I can't recall a more uninteresting bunch in any of the books/series I've read since the creation of the Hotlist.

The plot is very thin and more or less predictable. There were a few instances where Donaldson could/should have risen to the occasion and bring this tale to another level, but it was not to be. As I mentioned, this felt like a short story/novella padded with filler material. In his last newsletter, the author revealed that the forthcoming sequel will be more than twice as long as this book. In the end, Seventh Decimate is little more than a brief introduction to what is meant to be a bigger and more ambitious tale. In terms of pace, one would think that such a short work would not suffer from bouts of sluggish rhythm. Unfortunately, the story progresses extremely slowly and it felt as though I was reading a much longer novel.

Will I read the sequel? Based on the poor quality of this first installment, one would think that I wouldn't. Then again, The Gap into Conflict: The Real Story was by far the weakest volume in the Gap series. Had I stopped reading then, I would have missed out on an awesome grimdark space opera that blew me away. Granted, that first Gap book was head and shoulders above Seventh Decimate as far as quality is concerned. Still, though I can't promise to read the whole thing, in all likelihood I'll give the second volume a shot when the time comes.

There is no way to sugarcoat this. Seventh Decimate is the most disappointing fantasy title of 2017.

The final verdict: 5/10

For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

4 commentaires:

DontDriveAngry said...

I've been waiting for your review and rather surprised it got such a high score from you. I definitely felt the same way regarding the novella/short-story feel- the word I kept coming back to was "Simple"- the writing, the characters, the fantasy elements of it, while I've criticized Donaldson for being too overwrought and pretentious in some of his prior works (I'm still bitter about having to hate-read Against All Things Ending and The Last Dark just to see what happens to a Thomas Covenant) but it seems like he went so far in the opposite direction of his worst tendencies that I feel that Seventh Decimate would've been better marketed as a Young Adult novel- and I mean no disrespect to YA novels, authors or their fans, but the overall simplistic nature of this book would probably be better received by younger or newer readers just starting out in the genre who haven't learned how to expect better-developed characters or worlds just yet. In a weird way, I think the best thing the book ultimately had going for it was how short it was, allowing me to get it over with as quickly as possible.

Unknown said...

I recently finished it myself and had the same opinion as you. It almost seemed like it was a something he wrote very early in his career but never published, and pulled out recently to see if he could get it published. I recognized some the stylistic elements of his writing as similar to the Covenant books, but they seemed unpracticed.

Anonymous said...

I haven't had a chance to read this yet, but Donaldson has always been one of my favorite authors as well. The size of the novel gave me reservations as it did not look big enough to really be as in depth as his other works, but then remembered that The Real Story was also a slow, short start to the Gap series. Hopefully this series will follow the same pattern and finish strong.

machinery said...

that's what happens when tou try to impress people by writing impressive so called literature. arrogance will be your downfall.