When tapping into a new series, you look for engaging characters and a plot that’s different from what you’ve seen before. Sure, your typical Hero’s Journey types are going to follow a basic mold, but to have some elements in there that shake things up can make all the difference.
Enter Seventh Decimate, the first in a new fantasy war trilogy story from Stephen R. Donaldson that follows the prince of an ailing kingdom.
Prince Bifalt’s nation, Belleger, is at war with their neighbor, Amika. Amika primarily works its advantage in magic, invoking six “decimates,” or powers that represent fire, wind, lightning, drought, pestilence and earthquake. Amika’s ability to wield such power makes their sorcerers formidable.
Prince Bifalt makes it no secret that he hates his enemy and thinks them cowards with an unfair advantage. Sorcerers are untrusted by the people of Belleger, and the prince wishes to extinguish them completely.
Belleger, on the other hand, has discovered how to create rifles. The twist? The only way the Bellegerins were able to create those rifles without them subsequently blowing to pieces was to use the decimate of fire. That’s right… the folks who hate sorcery are using sorcery.
It’s only when Belleger’s sorcerers lose their power that they figure out Amika’s new sinister plot: to eliminate sorcery in Belleger so Amika can once again have the upper hand. This is what sets the prince and his small retinue of soldiers across distant lands in search of a book about the Seventh Decimate, so they can turn the tides in their favor.
Prince Bifalt is a character who is at war with himself over this whole sorcery debate. He hates the unfair advantage, but believes wholeheartedly that the Amikans are so evil that any measure must be taken. It’s this “you can’t have sorcery but we like to use it against you” attitude that made me dislike the prince in some moments.
He does, however, show a softer, more amiable side, coming through in his compassion for his people. True, he’s willing to travel to unmapped lands to save them, but he also shows his heart when he comes upon a village in the far reaches of his father’s lands and feeds the starving townspeople, tapping into what food his group has to travel with. The Prince may be stubborn and instantly vicious on the subject of the Amikans, but he’s willing to lend a helping hand to those who need it.
One of the strengths of this book is the world-building, seen through the people Prince Bifalt meets on his journey. At one point, he comes across a caravan full of people of different skin color, religions, and customs. This is his first time meeting any of these types of people and his reactions are that of a man who has been closed within his own borders for far too long.
Through the prince’s eyes, we get a taste of the colorful world Stephen Donaldson has created here, with introductions to the Monks from the Cult of the Many, the devotees of Spirit and Flesh, and the varied types of travelers in the caravan.
In reading Seventh Decimate, I was immediately drawn to the word play at work in the nomenclature of the Bellegerins and Amikans, particularly how similar their titles were to the words “belligerant” and “amicable.” At one point in the story, the prince is called a “belligerent Bellegerin,” and it isn’t a far stretch from the prince’s name of “Bifalt” to “by fault.” This worldplay plants a subversive seed in the reader’s head that we may be reading this story from the wrong side of the war.
Seventh Decimate is not an overbearingly long fantasy novel, at only 307 pages, and it keeps the action moving for the most part. Even when things slow down near the end and the prince remains in one location, events transpire and news is shared that keep changing the stakes. I found the travel scenes, though a common trope in fantasy stories, to be engaging, as the group recovers from surprise attacks and comes up with ways to get one over on their enemy.
I would have liked to see more character development in Prince Bifalt. I thought we were getting there by the end, but then he did something stubborn again which got him into even more trouble. It’s possible that he can’t have the character development I expected because this is only Book One in a trilogy. We have two more books to fill with conflict. Even so, I’m not as interested in seeing Belleger advance in their war because it seems so flawed. I’m hoping that, in Book Two, some major advancements increase the stakes.
Don’t get me wrong, the war between these nations is bloody and brutal, mixed with swords, firearms, and magic that wreaks certain havoc. But, as my trust in Belleger’s side of the war waned, so did my impatience to get the prince to see it that way.
This fantasy series launch is a good, easy read with plenty of interesting characters and some really harrowing scenes of survival. For those reasons alone, it’s worth taking a look at Seventh Decimate.