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Onyx reviews: Seventh Decimate by Stephen R. Donaldson

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 10/29/2017

Belleger and Amika have been at war for generations. It began because two brothers loved the same woman, but now people have forgotten what they're fighting over. Every so many years, once the wounds from the previous battle have healed, Amika attacks Belleger and Belleger defends itself.

Though these are primitive nations, both possess magic in the form of six "decimates," Fire, Wind, Pestilence, Earthquake, Drought and Lightning. The Magisters who wield this power can only do so for so long before exhausting themselves in battle. During peace, the sorcery is used for more mundane purposes: starting fires or healing, for example. The people of Belleger figured out how to temper steel with a magical fire and have put their skill to use making rifle barrels, which gives them a limited advantage over their adversaries, who have only swords and arrows. Belleger is the smaller nation, so rifles only level the playing field. The war continues.

Until, overnight, magic disappears from Belleger. This leaves them vulnerable in the next attack, and also prevents them from producing more firearms. They are so dependent upon sorcery, that they have forgotten how to do many routine things, so the nation is in crisis. They don't know how to survive without it. 

There are legends of a seventh decimate that can neutralize sorcery, and the Bellegerians believe Amika has acquired this knowledge and used it against them. The only response is for Belleger to return the favor. This possibly apocryphal power resides in a rumored book in a legendary library called the Last Repository. 

The library may lie to the east, past a formidable desert, but the long-running war has limited Belleger's vision of the world. The only other nation they know is their enemy. It doesn't even occur to them that there might be others beyond their limited horizons. So when Prince Bifalt sets out with a small retinue in search of the seventh decimate, few expect them to succeed or, indeed, survive. He has no map to his destination nor any assurance that it exists.

Donaldson set out to write a novella, but it instead turned into the opening volume in a trilogy known collectively as The Great God's War. This makes sense; the book seems to start out as one thing and become something very different over its course. The trilogy title is interesting in that the people of Belleger have no gods; in fact, do not understand the concept of a god. After many hardships, Bifalt encounters other tribes and nationalities and comes to learn how limited his vision of the world is. 

As with other Donaldson's protagonists (Thomas Covenant, most notably), Bifalt is obdurate, arrogant and stubborn—not a pleasant man on which to hang a reader's affections. He aggressively despises magic in all its forms, even when used for good. He believes it unfair that a man can inflict harm on others from a distance without any personal risk. He clings to his beliefs and tenets, even when it would be to his advantage (or to the advantage of his people) to do otherwise. He is a man who knows little about the world but he is oddly uncurious when presented with the opportunity to learn from those who know more, and he is staunch in his hatred of his long-time enemies. Still, it appears that higher powers are looking out for him, as evidenced by the number of times he should have died and confronts an unnamed entity asking if he is ready yet.

That the Bellegerians (and, presumably the Amikans) should know so little about their world after centuries is hard to accept. They simply believe any passages that lead away from their enemies to be impassable without testing that theory. The story feels like a thinly veiled allegory, with suggestive names. Are the Bellegerians belligerent? The Amikans amicable? Does Prince Bifalt have two character flaws? And yet these seemingly meaningful names don't join together to make a recognizable picture—at least, not yet.

Much has been written over the years about Donaldson's style. He embraces difficult language, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. However, one stylistic tic that he uses in most of his work is the breaking of dialog into multiple paragraphs. The only textual clue to this is the lack of a closing quotation mark at the end of the paragraph. The next paragraph continues the dialog, but without attribution, so the reader's initial assumption may be that another character is speaking. Some writers use this occasionally but Donaldson does it repeatedly, and it requires a kind of technical attention to the reading process that can be disruptive to the experience.

The next volume is tentatively titled Knowledge and Evil, representing the series' concept that Knowledge is the ultimate force for good. The Last Repository is a fortress built to contain and defend the accumulated learning of one faction of society against incursions from without by people who believe that knowledge is a corrupting influence. That certainly sounds like a modern day allegory.

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