Stephen Donaldson’s books, somewhat like K.J. Parker’s, have a great deal of similarity of tone and characterization. But where Donaldson’s worked well in – and was even the central conceit of – the Thomas Covenant series, his conflicted, unwilling characters have been less effective elsewhere. In this book, which is also fairly slight, at 200 pages, the characters are never really very well developed, and much of their action feels authorially dictated rather than organic. Rather than frustration at Covenant’s refusal to act, in this book, I found myself frustrated by the fact that Bifalt’s actions simply didn’t make much sense.
Covenant hasn’t lost his skill with words, though sometimes (as with ‘Decimates’, of which there appear to be fewer than ten, or a refusal to use any synonym for ‘wain’ over and over) he seems more obstinate than lyrical. The prose is strong, the concept and setting are interesting. It is only the characters that disappoint. Far too often, I felt that the characters’ actions were unreasonable, or senseless, or simplistic, or simply random. I discarded a fair portion of that feeling, since a part of the concept relies on key motives being unknown. But the remainder still stretched beyond what I felt I could accept. At one point, Bifalt, who has spent the whole book searching for the mysterious Seventh Decimate, completely ignores two others. The ending, particularly, didn’t fit with any of the rigid, unimaginative Bifalt we’d spent the book getting to know. The result felt very artificial and constructed.
Overall, an interesting entry, but not really satisfying. I’d like, someday, to see Donaldson lift himself out of the rut I think he’s created – as his short fiction and flashes in other books suggest he can. For the present, it’s a good book, and I could imagine reading a sequel, but it’s not high on my list.
The cover, by the way, while certainly interesting, has nothing at all to do with the contents of the book.