Seventh Decimate - Stephen Donaldson
Seventh Decimate: The Great God's War Book One - Stephen Donaldson *****
The reader is likely to have certain expectations when it comes to Stephen Donaldson embarking on a new fantasy series. Some of them are met in Seventh Decimate, the first book of The Great God's War, and some are not. For others we'll have to just have to wait until the series really gets going, because Seventh Decimate has all the appearances of an introduction to a fantasy world that is going to get a lot bigger with a lot more complex moral questions to be resolved.
As an opening book, Seventh Decimate certainly starts off in a fairly straightforward and conventional manner, but a more expansive view is hinted at, and it might even be the whole purpose of the author's latest reworking of fantasy genre. We begin in a familiar and basic warring kingdoms setting, where there are (initially at least) only two kingdoms in conflict; Belleger in the south and Amika to the north. An old enmity exists based on an ancient and unreliable legend, and the result has been endless battles, skirmishes or "hells" between the two halves of a divided nation.
In this fantasy world, both sides have recourse to sorcery. Magisters practice the art of theurgy which permits them to control one of the six Decimates (fire, wind, pestilence, earthquakes, drought, lightning), but Belleger have recently acquired the knowledge (from ancient texts) to build rifles. No fan of sorcery, Prince Bifalt of Belleger, son of King Abbator, takes the rifles to use against the Magisters in their latest battle, but is killed in the process by a blast of lightning Decimate. Somehow however he recovers and finds that Belleger no longer have the power of theurgy.
Not only does this leave them open to finally being overrun by the barbaric Amika, but without these powers manufacturing, agriculture and even the forging of rifles becomes a problem and the kingdom will likely perish. One old Belleger Magister however recalls that he has heard about a seventh Decimate that has the property of ending sorcery, and it appears that this has been used against them by the Amika. The secret of the seventh Decimate is said to be found in an ancient book in a library in the unknown lands of the East, so Prince Bifalt sets out on a quest to unexplored lands in search of an ancient spell that might save his nation.
Thus far it's very much a case of so-far-so-familiar. Bifalt even appears to be a flawed hero in the Thomas Covenant mould, a reluctant wielder of power (having survived death and appearing to have been chosen by a voice from on high) who proves to be prone to making basic strategic mistakes in his quest. As Bifalt and the few surviving members of his team venture into the unknown deserts to the East however, a much wider view of this world starts to form, and it's one that, unusually for a fantasy novel, even seems to have some real-world commentary.
Where Seventh Decimate departs from the conventional path is in how Donaldson seems to be prepared to challenge the basic rules of the fantasy novel. Why should kingdoms be perpetually at war? What rationale can permit it? Other than perspective, who determines one side to be good and the other evil, when both have shown themselves capable of committing war atrocities? Why does Bifalt believe that one side only should have access to weapons of mass destruction and seek to deprive another nation of wanting to possess them to protect their own people?
It's too early to draw any real-world parallels from this or imagine where subsequent books might go - a pacifist fantasy series? - but on its own terms Seventh Decimate is a very promising start to a new Stephen Donaldson series that seems to have ambitions to play within the genre, but also look beyond it. The writing is as ever beautifully lucid and free from the usual stilted dialogue. The creation of a more colourful eastern kingdom with a greater variety of races, belief systems and cultural ideas beyond the insular perspective of the Belleger/Amika sorcery wars is perhaps not anything new (at this stage), but it does lend further colour to the book and suggest that there is a much wider world and much more to explore in The Great God's War.
Seventh Decimate: The Great God's War Book One by Stephen R Donaldson is published by Gollancz on 16th November 2017