“In With a Magic Bullet.”
Stephen Donaldson, in his time as a writer, has created an impressive line in flawed, unlikeable bastards. Generally they are men, but a few honourable men-tions to the deranged women he has managed to engage our attention as readers with. They come in many forms and all ages, people who are estranged to themselves, fragmented personalities, those who struggle with belief systems that ought to sustain them.
The central character, of this volume, and I stress this volume as the body count is so high in this book that even the most clearly defined characters have the sword of Damocles (or George R R Martin if you prefer) hanging over them, is Prince Bifalt. He is indeed one such brooding self-critical powder keg, always on the cusp of exploding into warp spasms of extreme violence. A Prince to be sure, but one who has won the respect of his men in time shared and scars ac-crued in defence of his realm. In his time on many battle fronts he has been forced to get down and dirty and bloody with his peoples, The Belleger, and their conflict with the sorcerous Amika.
The Amika use a series of devastating magics, six terrifying Decimates born of fire, wind, pestilence, earthquake, drought and lightning. Each one the principal gift and power wielded by the sorcerers of the Belleger’s rival kingdom. Sol-diers, no matter how well armed or trained, fall like cut grass before these dev-astating magical weapons of mass destruction. Prince Bifalt despises the men who command such unearthly gifts, seeing them as unnatural and dishonoura-ble, cowardly and cruel. Always throwing their magics while retaining a safe distance from the fighting, in much the same way a samurai, Spartan or other honour-based and coded combatant might have viewed a rifleman when engag-ing them in conflict for the first time. Which brings us to…
Prince Bifalt presses an advantage developed secretly, embracing the creation and use of repeater rifles in this seemingly endless conflict, where a sorcerer can be taken out by use of a distant rifleman, just out of range of the devastating Decimates. Yes, magic and bullets, the words have a certain dissonance that does not sit comfortably on the ear or the imagination. It’s the thought of a Samurai warrior using a Tommy Gun or a Hobbit using a taser on an Orc. Like a word salad or a jumble of words which do not go together.
Yet Stephen Donaldson pulls it off with the full weight of his signature contra-dictory skill in creating complex morally ambiguous characters. The deeply honourable Prince Bifalt shares our cognitive dissonance with regard to this newly developed form of warfare but embraces it as a necessary evil. As though he has stepped outside the narrative and understands the anachronistic nature of this wartime development, but goes along with it, ian advantage he will not dismiss just because it “feels” wrong, not with so much at stake.
I really grew to like this prince Bifalt, contradictions and all. He is a big, surly warrior Prince, brutally pragmatic in affairs of conflict and given to savage rages when the need arises, as the gods of Bellerian and Amika hammer loudly on the anvil of war. Yet the Prince is capable of surprising even himself with touching gestures of kindness and mercy, while all around him boil with rage for the blood of their foes. He is a self- conscious warrior on a quest for a magic book, who burns with the hard-won knowledge that sometimes the most unreliable narrator of all is the one we hear in our own heads.
He is my kind of guy. There are possibly some other readers who will find themselves annoyed that the central character is not on a journey of self-discovery which turns him into someone else by the end of this volume. Stephen Donaldson’s hard men, and tough women, speak directly to the readers in thought and deed, with an almost steely poetic introspection they are rarely able to articulate to themselves. So true to life.
After all, everywhere we go, there we are.