Review: Seventh Decimate
It’s probably been fifteen years since I last read any Stephen Donaldson. It started with LORD FOUL’S BANE then the two sequels in that trilogy (which ultimately became 10 books) and, honestly, they weren’t my favorite. The main character was more anti-hero than I’d encountered before, and any reader could see that Tolkien had an influence on Donaldson’s worldbuilding. But Donaldson has a following, so I thought I’d try again with his most recent offering, SEVENTH DECIMATE, which as far as I could tell would be different than the series that introduced me to the author.
Turns out, my first impressions of Donaldson were only reinforced.
Prince Bifalt’s homeland of Belleger has been at war with Amika for generations, but now that the Bellegerins have discovered the manufacture of rifles and their ammunition, they can finally stand a chance against Amika’s sorcerers in battle. And at first it looks like their attempts at curbing the Amikan advance would meet with success… until the Prince is knocked down in battle by obviously supernatural means with the phrase “Are you ready?” whispered into his mind. When he recovers he learns that all of Belleger’s sorcerers’ magic is gone and that the only way to get it back is by finding a book of sorcery in a library that no one knows how to find. So Bifalt and a group of warriors, a (former) sorcerer, and support staff head off on their quest to find said library and save Belleger.
I admit, I was thinking to myself, “Donaldson [smh], Donaldson. You’ve been writing for 40 years and this is what you come up with? Sending a prince on a quest to find a mythological library? Really?”
And that’s the story in a nutshell. The plot of SEVENTH DECIMATE is very straightforward, and unfortunately predictable because it’s stuff I’ve seen before. Even worse, is it’s a predictable story told soooooo sloowwwwlllly as they trek through Belleger and beyond, encountering resistance and trials along the way. Once I finished the novel and looked back, there were too many inconsistences that left me with questions. And if the next novel takes this long to reveal anything, I’m not sure I want to spend the time on it.
Part of what slows the story down is Bifalt’s continual internal monologue. Way more navel gazing than this plot-oriented reader could put up with (seriously, all Bifalt’s thoughts could have been halved and it still might have been too much). Which is weird because despite all this interior monologue some of the actions he took still weren’t believable. When it comes down to it, the story revolves around Bifalt and his evolution; but despite all the energy to tell his story, I never got a concrete understanding of the main character. Donaldson’s known for psychological complexity in his characters, so maybe I’m just not that kind of reader because I had a hard time with the repetitiveness and Bifalt’s blind mental rigidity to be able to find the conclusion believable.
Typical Dondalson fare with a tortured character and pendantic-moving plot. SEVENTH DECIMATE is for the traditional fantasy fan but maybe not everyone.
The worldbuilding felt more original than the Thomas Covenant books (although the naming conventions continue to be awkward and hard to read). Bifalt is from a small, isolated country and he discovers how small and ignorant it really is, but we only get a taste of the wider world; and other than the Bellegerans themselves we learn almost nothing about Belleger. Learning about sorcerery was interesting, even though we don’t actually see any for 80% of the book, which made the magic side of worldbuilding painfully slow considering how integral its existence was to the plot as a whole.
The prose is rather stiff and formal and I never really got used to it. Donaldson is known for his use of arcane vocabulary, so I guess he’s being consistent, but I’m not sure it’s going to attract new readers–namely millennials, whom I guess would be the target audience considering the novel’s issues of intolerance and self-awareness. The prose unfortunately made the main characters feel distant and unreal. The secondary characters were more understandable to me because they were less complexly drawn than Bifalt; but especially early on I was getting them mixed up despite the repetitive character descriptions.
The end is disappointingly abrupt and falls flat. A straightforward plot and predictable events made it all feel contrived, like he had a point to make and by golly he was going to make it no matter what. I say this because it had something of a preachy tone, and I strongly suspect it has intentional correlation to modern countries and events. Perhaps your teenage or new adult son would enjoy this book because of the trials Bifalt goes through as he struggles to deal with his hatred of Amika. Alas, this book just wasn’t for the likes of me.
- Recommended Age: 14+
- Language: I don't recall anything strong
- Violence: Fighting, battle scenes, death, and some blood, but ungraphic
- Sex: Minor references
I have the impression that the two-volume “Mordant’s Need” is considered the least of Donaldson’s works by many of his fans (though I have no quotes on that so I may be wrong), but I’ve always enjoyed it far more than anything Covenant-related or The Gap series. I’m not as leery of the princely quest idea but on balance this doesn’t seem like the book that will dethrone “Mordant’s Need” for me.
Basically as bad as the Covenant books.