If Stephen R. Donaldson has a brand, it’s misery: his SFF novels are ripe with suffering as he pushes his characters—usually not the happiest people to begin with—into the depths of despair. This trait is best exemplified by his recently wrapped epic The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, which put its titular main character—and literally everybody else he met across the nine-volume story—on a serious downward slide. And keep in mind, Covenant started off the first book with leprosy. Donaldson’s characters typically have to go through a gauntlet and be stripped of everything before (if) they find a pathway to triumph.
With Seventh Decimate, Donaldson launches a new series and, once again, pulls no punches. The story explores two of the author’s favorite themes: the illusion of control, and the corrupting influence of power. The result is a relatively short but powerful story. (Some spoilers for the first part of the book follow.)
The book opens in the midst of a pitched battle between the forces of Belleger and Amika, countries with a shared border that have been at war for so long, its cause is wrapped in legend and myth. The battles are incredibly brutal, and recovering from them takes years on both sides. This brutality is largely due to the power of the Magisters, sorcerers who unleash one of six Decimates on the battlefield—fire, lightning, pestilence, earthquakes, drought, and wind. Each of these spells can be used in a positive or negative way; in the negative, the sorcerers can cause incredible destruction from a safe remove.
As the battle commences, Belleger is reeling from the endless conflict. With its population dwindling and its resources exhausted, the country is about to unleash a desperate new invention: gunpowder. The soldiers of Belleger view the rifle as their only hope against the savage, inhuman cruelty of Amika, which they fear is on the verge of overrunning Belleger for once and for all.
Leading a company of riflemen in this battle is Prince Bifalt, heir to the throne of Belleger. The prince is a complex character, a royal who has become respected among the men for his bravery, a man who despises sorcery even as he relies on it to protect his homeland. Bifalt regards magic as a plague, and views the men who can do such harm from hidden places of safety to be worse than cowards. He hopes rifles—the forging of which require the Decimate of Fire—will finally end the endless war, and allow him to build a society that does not rely on Magisters.
During the battle, a Magister spots the prince from his sniper’s hole—one of many subtle ironies Donaldson seeds into the story is how Bifalt embraces sniping without ever seeing the parallels to the sorcery he hates—and unleashes the Decimate of Lightning on him. The prince miraculously survives, and receives a vision in which a voice asks him, “are you ready?”
After the battle, something incredible happens: all sorcery in Belleger ceases to work. Since the nation relies on the positive functions of sorcery to survive—for example, Magisters skilled in the Decimate of Pestilence can also heal—as well as for its defense, this is disaster. Everyone assumes Amika has acquired a legendary Seventh Decimate that has destroyed sorcery in Belleger, and the prince is commanded by his father to seek out a possibly mythical library where the knowledge of the Seventh Decimate is kept, with the hope he can reverse the spell before Amika can summon its forces for the final invasion. Bifalt hand-selects a group of soldiers to head off into the mapless desert to the East in a desperate hunt for the grimoire, and Donaldson’s gears of misery begin to churn in earnest. The defiant prince watches over the slow destruction of his company, as, bit by bit, Donaldson grinds his pride into the hot sand. With every setback and tragedy, the prince hears that mysterious voice again.
To say this story isn’t going where you think is an understatement. Donaldson has a clever sidestep in the works that takes the prince and the reader in an unexpected direction, and gives the former an education in what true power is. Despair is the starting point for Prince Bifalt, not his end—in Donaldson’s fantasy novels, despair is what burns away the unnecessary things, and allows us to finally see the world as it is. Seventh Decimate is billed as book one of The Great God’s War; though it ends on a definitive note, the universe Donaldson has sketched is obviously much larger than the glimpses we’ve seen. I’m excited, if not a bit trepidatious, to see what miseries he has in store for us.