Seventh Decimate (The Great God's War)
by Stephen R. Donaldson
Review by Drew Bittner
Berkley Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780399586132
Date: 14 November 2017 List Price $27.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Belleger and Amika have been at war for generations, a bitter and savage conflict waged with swords, magic ... and rifles. As much as Belleger's Prince Bifalt despises and distrusts his kingdom's magisters, he knows they cannot defeat Amika without them. But then, the magic disappears and suspicion falls on Amika. Only a desperate mission into the unknown has any hope of finding this magic-destroying knowledge and saving Belleger.
This is the tale of The Seventh Decimate, Book One of The Great God's War by Stephen R. Donaldson. In an all-new fantastic world, champions must strive against enemies of all kinds, not least of all their own natures. Bifalt, for instance, struggles with the contradiction of his hatred for magic against his kingdom's dependence upon it. He finds magic dishonorable but is willing to accept it if it means crushing the hated Amikans.
His fears are well-founded. Generations of battle have left Belleger desolate and unpopulated, its sole city surrounded by farmlands returning to the wild. Only the deployment of rifles, a Bellegeran invention, offers hope against the Amikans, who seem more skilled in magic and tactics. Bifalt is struck down by lightning ... and asked "Are you ready?" by a disembodied voice.
Very soon after, every single one of their magisters loses their powers. An elderly magister recalls the rumor of such a power, a seventh branch of magic apart and above the six already known, which holds the power to quench all others. The secret of this magic lies in a book, but Bifalt has no idea where the book might be.
Trusting hearsay and fragmentary gossip, Bifalt leads an expedition to seek out a sorcerous library and acquire the book for Belleger. He is set on gaining this power and using it against Amika, in order to end their war once and for all. But along the way, Bifalt learns that their two kingdoms are a tiny corner of a very large world with great struggles of its own ... and his fixation, clinging to ignorant certainties, may endanger far more than his own people.
The journey once started is threatened by treachery and ignorance. Their map is uncertain, with only the vague promise that the library--the Last Repository--lies to the east. Even with as many riflemen as they can spare, the expedition is dangerously exposed early on and suffers heavy losses, leaving Bifalt at the edge of a vast desert with but two comrades, when an unlikely caravan rolls through.
One theme this tale shares with Donaldson's bestselling Thomas Covenant series is that the answer one gives to an urgent need says more about the person than the problem, and one's own preconceptions are often the ultimate prison. Bifalt is not Covenant, but he is headstrong and deeply torn inside, his integrity at odds with his desperation. He is caught in a paradox of his own making, which cannot be easily or gently resolved; he is a man at war with himself as much as with Amika, and this leads him to make serious mistakes.
His soldier comrade Elgart, on the other hand, appears to have a more measured view of their experiences. Taken by the sorceress/assassin Amandis, he has a destiny ahead of him that could put him at odds with Bifalt in the future, but his strength and surety keep Bifalt on target as they approach their goal. Likewise, hapless but loyal Klamath's simple faith keeps Bifalt humble in the face of being overwhelmed by the burden of his duty.
Donaldson delivers a surprising start to what promises to be a very unconventional fantasy series. His characters are unaware of the larger world; the impact of this knowledge affects them all differently, and that will surely be an ongoing element of the story. What does it do to a soldier when he realizes that everything he knows is so small? Are there truths that surpass one's hatred? Can one resist growing when confronted with these larger truths, even if it serves another's agenda?
The answers to these questions are surely forthcoming. For now, though, the context in which they are asked slowly takes shape. And thus is another fantasy classic forged.