Offal-Scrying and the Forces of Justice
Novellas seem to be the new thing: for those of us who want more of a beloved world, or less of a read in busy times, or just less investment in a new author, these quarter-to-half-sized novels seem to fit the zeitgeist. This was how we got into The King’s Justice—having heard great things about Stephen R. Donaldson, but quailing before the commitment of reading the multi-volumed (and decaded) Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, his new double-novella seemed a good fit.
And it is—if you’re looking for rich worlds and magic systems in shorter fiction, if you enjoy well-drawn and surprising characters, if you like a mystery that revolves as much around the world itself as tangible clues—and surprises. Because there’s a surprise. But first—what are they actually about?
In short, we have the tale of a man named only Black who arrives in a troubled town with darker (and lighter) purposes than the wary guardsmen suspect. Digging deep into what’s gone wrong, he finds himself in over his (and the King’s) head—but has a few more resources than even his liege knows. The second novella, The Augur’s Gambit, is quite different: the quixotic narrative of a high-strung (intestinal) seer caught between trust and horror at his queen’s apparent political suicide in the face of separately horrific and impending (according to the entrails) disasters. Set in different worlds and magics, the tales share Donaldson’s keen eye for detail, his knack for creating unique and likeable (even if dark and/or high-strung) characters, and plots that keep you guessing till the end.
What they don’t share is tone and pacing. The book’s namesake novella, about Black, is classic fast-paced fantasy, with a tone befitting its main character and a climax that gets dark as Black himself. The Augur’s Gambit, meanwhile, suffers some from thick, antiquated language, with the narrator’s overwrought emotions slowing the pace painfully. It’s unfortunate, because the mystery he unravels, and the climax of the story, is the better of the two, but be prepared for a thicker read than your average fantasy novel—think Dickens or Dostoevski rather than Sanderson or Butcher (whose styles compare admirably to the first novella).
Okay, but what’s the surprise? In a word, it’s meaning. In a time of fantasy focused more on entertaining tales and fast-paced action, Donaldson manages to work in allegory, involving both tales, on the dangers of harnessing powers (technology in our world, magic in the tales) beyond our control. I won’t spoil it, and interpretations like this are in the eye of the bereader, but suffice it to say Donaldson admirably delivers more in The King’s Justice than a couple good reads. To top it off, there are no mega-happy endings here—Donaldson manages a good balance between Martin-esque darkness and Sandersonian mega-happies, with reveals and wrap-ups that still keep you guessing.
Surprised? We were, and in mostly good ways, at Donaldson’s new novella collection. Whether you’re new to the author, or an old fan looking for a new book, it’s worth a read.