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The King’s Justice: Two Novellas by Stephen R. Donaldson

By / December 9, 2015 / no comments

G. P. Putnam’s Sons | Oct. 2015 | Cover by John Jude Palencar

 

Like another novel I recently read, Peter Newman’s The Vagrant, the titular story in Donaldson’s The King’s Justice: Two Novellas (2015) is written in my least favourite perspective, the omniscient present tense. However, unlike the often clipped, adjective-heavy sentences of uniform length frequently found in the former novel, the cadence of the prose in this collection’s first narrative flows rather more naturally. Otherwise, the novella offers a much more old-fashioned tale, though quite compellingly told.

“The King’s Justice” is a mystery, a detective story set in a secondary world where the magically ‘shaped’ man Black, with his sigils and glyphs that give him unusual abilities, arrives at a crossroads town to fulfil his strange purpose. This animus leads to the uncovering of a terrible crime, and he thereafter attempts a deciphering of the puzzle that lies behind it.

What’s enjoyable about the story with its decidedly Western, frontiers-like tenor is its harking back to sword-and-sorcery roots, especially reminiscent of Robert E. Howard with the tales of Solomon Kane. However, instead of dealing with the more ‘mundane’ supernatural evils that Puritan adventurer regularly contended with, Black’s world is infused with more fanciful magic. It’s a world only recently brought to a tenuous equilibrium from the turmoil of the Balance Wars, the background of which is dispensed in small morsels as Black interviews various individuals to glean the information he requires to fulfil said purpose.

There’s a nostalgic element to this tale. Unlike the many attempts by modern fantasy novelists at uniqueness, there’s absolutely nothing experimental or au courant about it, yet it grabs with its very simplicity and measured pace. The interviews with various individuals are well done – sparse yet vivid, and even indicative of brief moments of pathos. The peak of these interviews is one particular account, folklore-ish and ever so slightly mythopoeic, that brings to mind some of the types of stories Neil Gaiman would have penned in The Sandman.

Being a shorter novella, there is a paucity in the sketches of intentions and motives of other characters. Or rather, it should be said that the motives are there, but drawn out on the verge to where they’re just visible enough to play their specific parts in support of Black’s investigation. The immediacy of Black’s perspective is all important and consequently the focus. It’s the kind of tale one might expect out of the pulp magazines of yesteryear – simple, well-plotted and, despite one particular instance that later necessitates what could be construed as a slight deus ex machina, eminently readable.

*****

The second and longer novella in this collection, while also a mystery, couldn’t be more different. Told in the more intimate first person with an almost confessional tone, the highly stylised prose of “The Auger’s Gambit” also brings to mind fantasists of old. This time, with an ambiance redolent of E. R. Eddison in the slightly unrestrained indulgence of lexicon utilised, where Donaldson prefers a more formal word-stock when given the choice (as seen in his fantasies concerning the leper Thomas Covenant).

“The Augur’s Gambit” concerns itself with a hierophant in service to the queen of an isolated, prosperous and peaceful isle, where his prognostications of the kingdom’s general yet certain doom have compelled his monarch on peculiar courses of action. These being unfathomable political machinations that seem to court the very disaster she wishes to forestall.

The highlight of this novella is the solid, gradual development of the hierophant – from secluded, uninformed and apprehensive personality to emboldened individual. This in pursuit of solutions to a plight that is brought about by actions predicated on his divination. And how, in his service to queen and kingdom, and valued friendship, he commits to a course where he might needs pay an exorbitant price.

While this longer novella begins with an unhurried pace, it quickly engrosses with the mystery of the kingdom’s origin and reads like the telling of a Gothic fable. Every new element adds greatly to a background that seems to hint at a complexity with underpinnings seemingly an admixture of both the scientific and fantastic, but is never made conclusive till the revelations towards the end.

One of the more pleasing aspects of the story are the twists on names of characters in relation to their personalities. This is a feature that has declined in fashion with modern fiction’s increasing tendency towards the commonplace in realism, which encourages neutral names. Here, counter to James Smith’s humorous assertion that “surnames ever go by contraries,” Donaldson takes the route where names are directly indicative of character traits or relations (with one exception). There is the adverse queen whose efforts work at cross purposes; the hierophant himself, attempting to unravel layers of intricacy; and the various barons with a particularly humorous appellation being that of Praylix Venery, “who could not have kept a secret if it were locked in a vault.” It’s a feature adding strongly to the fable-like quality in a narrative that turns out to be both gripping and thoughtful for the questions it poses on the dilemmas brought by change, and the perhaps deceptive allure of a utopian-like and, ultimately, stagnant state of being.

Stephenson R. Donaldson is most well known for two major works in genre fiction. There is his Tolkienesque though deeply psychological and subversive epic fantasy that is the First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. There is also the superb, dark and even more complex SFnal rendition of Wagner’s Der Ring des Niebelungen that is the Gap Cycle. For long-standing fans, The King’s Justice: Two Novellas is a must read. For those unfamiliar with his work, it offers an easy entry point to sample Donaldson’s capabilities through two very solid, shorter pieces with mysteries central to them both.

© 2015 Nirvan Jain

Stephen R. Donaldson

 

 

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