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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
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
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