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.
©2015 Stephen R. Donaldson (P)2015 Recorded Books
The Kings Justice is a book containing 2 novellas, the first new writing from Donaldson since the (final?) instalment of the Thomas Covenant Series.
I'm giving this book 3 stars only because I'm a Donaldson fan, and thus I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt - perhaps I just wasn't in the mood for these 2 stories. I found them to be just so.....lacklustre.
All the usual Donaldson tropes are present - in the first story from which the book gets its title we have a mysterious character named Black, a world weary and broken hero from whom more than his very mortality might be required to serve his king's purpose. This story is so average by Donaldson's usual high standards that only a few days later I can hardly remember anything of note from it.
The second and longer story, The Augur's Gambit, has its own share of Donaldson's standard themes. In this story we have an island kingdom facing a prophecy of impending doom, and in light of that, a monarch who seems to think the salvation of her people lies in bringing them to the point of war and embracing it. Mix in some highly unorthodox political machinations and of course the obligatory hero who serves their queen with blind unflinching allegiance, honour and trust despite her questionable motives and tactics and you've got a very very poor cousin to Donaldson's excellent Mirror Of Her Dreams / A Man Rides Through novels.
Traditionally, Donaldson's greatest strength has been his characters. Throughout his writing, his major characters are complex and often sociopathically flawed people, whether they be emotionally or physically broken, maniacally evil or naively innocent and pure. Whether they were heroes or villains, they always drew a visceral reaction from me - whether it was extreme like, dislike or frustration. That is where I think the achilles heel of these 2 novellas lies. The characters in these 2 stories are either just so bland or tired ghosts of better characters he's written in the past that I found it impossible to care about any of them.
Hopefully this is just a minor blip and better stories and characters are in store for us next time.
In regards to the narration - the first story is read by Scott Brick, who has read parts of Donaldson's iconic Thomas Covenant books (frustratingly not available on Audible though). Brick tries hard to wring something out what is a really average story - so much so that he almost has to overact the narration in an attempt to bring the story to life.
The second story is narrated by Kevin Orton, someone who I have not heard before and his reading gives the story a kind of aristocratic tone, which while it took some time for me to get used to, did end up suiting the tone of the story.
I've been a Donaldson fan forever and I very much enjoyed these stories.
The first novella, The King's Justice, is a dark fantasy. Another reviewer described it as reminiscent of a western. I agree: a western told told in rich nearly-poetic language. Its tone is is greatest strength. I highly, highly recommend listening to the audiobook version, read by Scott Brick, who knows exactly how to invoke a story like this.
The second novella, The Augur's Gambit, is a story of intrigue in the Queen's court, much in the same spirit as Daughter of Regals or Mordant's Need. Daughter is one of my favorite Donaldson stories, and this one is great fun as well.
In both of the stories I would have liked to have more of the story. Each could have been a full-length novel. But Donaldson makes the novellas work by hinting at much more history and background than he told directly. This is the case at whatever length Donaldson writes because he always imagines much more than he can ever get fully on the page.
These stories are very enjoyable and I heartily encourage you to try them.
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