Sent to me by Gollancz in exchange for an honest review.
Release Date: 15/06/17
Format: Paperback, 336pp
Summed up in a word: Sovereign
I am currently on a fantasy binge as I have been away from the genre for far too long. The King’s Justice and The Augur’s Gambit are two novellas penned by veteran fantasy legend Stephen Donaldson. Both stories are unique pieces of work that combine fantasy with stories of politics, murder, mystery and religion. I am on the fence with this book… I found it difficult to get stuck into quite a lot of the time. Donaldson’s writing is dark, pensive and thorough. My enthusiasm did wain on several occasions with both The King’s Justice and The Augur’s Gambit. I don’t feel that Donaldson’s story-telling style really grabbed me whole-heartedly at any point in the book and that left me wanting. I believe that this book will suit fantasy readers who like more a slow-paced novel that focuses more on dark story-telling and worldly issues. More details in my full review below.
Two new, original novellas-Donaldson’s first publication since finishing the Thomas Covenant series-are a sure cause for celebration among his many fans.
In The King’s Justice, a stranger dressed in black arrives in the village of Settle’s Crossways, following the scent of a terrible crime. He even calls himself “Black,” though almost certainly that is not his name. The people of the village discover that they have a surprising urge to cooperate with this stranger, though the desire of inhabitants of quiet villages to cooperate with strangers is not common in their land, or most lands. But this gift will not save him as he discovers the nature of the evil concealed in Settle’s Crossways.
The “Augur’s Gambit” is a daring plan created by Mayhew Gordian, Hieronomer to the Queen of Indemnie, a plan to save his Queen and his country. Gordian is a reader of entrails. In the bodies of chickens, lambs, piglets, and one stillborn infant he sees the same message: the island nation of Indemnie is doomed. But even in the face of certain destruction a man may fight, and the Hieronomer is utterly loyal to his beautiful Queen–and to her only daughter. The “Augur’s Gambit” is his mad attempt to save a kingdom.
Stephen Donaldson is a true master of fantasy and both The King’s Justice and The Augur’s Gambit are a testament to that talent. They are dark tales of war, revolution and murder. They should have been ticking all the boxes for me but I never fully connected with either story. I have not experienced Donaldson’s work before and based solely on these two novellas I don’t think I will be returning any time soon. I recognise that both these stories are a great editions to the fantasy genre but they just weren’t for me. There were moments that I felt SD’s writing pulling me in but overall I was left wanting. SD writes a great story but both the themes and delivery didn’t suit me as a reader.
The King’s Justice is, at its core, a murder investigation; though it is shrouded in dark magic, power and fear of the gods. Told from the perspective of the mysterious ‘Black’. Black has been charged with visiting Settle’s Crossway to investigate the presence of individuals using nefarious ritualistic magic on citizen’s of the town. Black is an intriguing character and I do wish there was more to his story. The King’s Justice is a brief and brutal. A tragic murder has the town desperate for revenge and Black is there to find those responsible. This is definitely the stronger of the two pieces in my opinion.
Though there are strong religious themes, which I don’t usually acknowledge that often, they were never frustratingly overbearing. SD doesn’t leave anything to the imagination, it is all there on the page. The graphic violence is vivid and stomach turning at times. Black, for me, was the best part to this novella. He is a brilliantly dark character, covered in sigils, glyphs and scarification, who has abandoned his past.
“He is Black. Long ago, he made himself, or was shaped, into a man who belongs in darkness. Now no night scares him, and no nightmare. Only his purpose has that power. He pursues it so that one day it will lose its sting.”
Donaldson’s writing style has precision. He says a lot with only a few words. I enjoyed his use of words that you don’t commonly see in books these days. His voice is well mannered, polished and striking but it has a nasty bite to it. I could have done with more of this story but it ended just as I was settling in. Then we move on The Augur’s Gambit.
Donaldson’s second story, the larger of the two at 188pp, is a story of revolution. Taking place on the island of Indemnie where food and resources are abundant and strife/indifference is seemingly non-existent. As you all know, us humans never stay content forever and soon the Queen is facing civil war. The main character Mayhew Gordian is a Seer, reading entrails to seek prophecies. The message is always consistent, the island faces destruction, whether from the inside or from the threat that sits beyond the horizon. Mayhew loves his Queen and her daughter; he may not be a warrior but he will fight for them both or die trying.
I struggled through this with hope that it would develop into a big, explosive and electrifying story centred around war. It sort of met this criteria but to me it just seemed like 80% of the story existed just to set up one key moment in the finale. The Augur’s Gambit felt a bit like a socioeconomic experience that aimed to highlight the real-life struggle we face with dwindling resources and civil war. The fantasy element never really showed itself in this second story and I was left with the feeling that I had wasted my time. The observant, descriptive and sophisticated writing style is consistent in The Augur’s Gambit as well but overall I felt that it got bogged down with lots of sitting in rooms and talking which I have I was not expecting.
Overall I recommend this book to readers who enjoy a deeper, slower-paced fantasy reading experience. There were definitely elements to this book that got me excited but they were sporadic and never grabbed me whole-heartedly. I think my expectations for both novellas may have been to high, due to Donaldson’s stature, but I was left disappointed. I will certainly try some more of Donaldson’s work in the future but not for a while yet.
About Stephen Donaldson
Stephen Donaldson lived in India for 13 years with his father, a medical missionary, who worked extensively with lepers; it was here that he conceived the character of Thomas Covenant. He was awarded the John W. Campbell Award as Best Writer of the Year for The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever, which, with the sequel trilogy, became instant bestsellers. He is also the author of the fantasy duology ‘Mordant’s Need’, the SF epic quintet ‘The Gap’, and a number of mysteries written under the pseudonym Reed Stephens. He won the World Fantasy Award in 2000. The four books of The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant have been acclaimed worldwide.