The Augur’s Gambit / The King’s Justice by Stephen Donaldson

The Augur’s Gambit / The King’s Justice
Stephen Donaldson
Gollancz, 192 / 128 pages
Review: Chris Heyman

To describe a creative project as a palette cleanser would seem to disparage it but there is no more fitting term for The Augur’s Gambit and The King’s Justice, shipped as one volume in America but released in the UK as two individual novellas. Over the last four decades Stephen Donaldson has focussed on several multi-volume series, but in a recent gap between epics he has delivered these twin tales that both follow magicians saving their kingdoms. Donaldson uses his gift for rounded characterisation to distinguish these leads, with one protagonist wide eyed and earnest while the other is a jaded husk.

When Stephen King interrupted a run of cocaine epics with his Different Seasons novellas he included winking confirmation that the four disparate stories had a common setting. Donaldson’s tales do not share any hints of co-existence, and this decision works to his advantage. By investing in fresh world building he is able to keep the reader intrigued as the local rules of magic are drip fed on a need to know basis, raising as many questions as they answer. These answers do come, with endings that neatly resolve conflicts that could support much longer books. In interviews Donaldson is keen to play this potential down, positioning himself as an ‘efficient’ writer, where the universe is created to serve the characters, rather than being planned in great detail beforehand. If the character’s story is over, so too is their world.

One such character is Mayhew Gordian of The Augur’s Gambit. As the Queen’s Hieronimer he is a sheltered innocent up to his elbows in dead poultry, looking for the future in the entrails. He’s an odd duck, devoted to his queen and her plucky daughter, Excrucia. The Queen is an assertive and inscrutable presence, using a blinkered Mayhew for her own schemes but ultimately he must find his own path and succeed or fail in the trying. With the Queendom of Indemnie foretold to collapse, Mayhew must learn fast to save his country, with the added obstacle that his particular set of skills can’t tell him the nature of the threat. This leads to a collaboration with the princess to discover the secret of the island community’s mysterious origins. Even as Mayhew’s horizons grow we are never allowed to forget how unpleasant his day job is. This grit is moderate by Donaldson’s extreme standards. His early Thomas Covenant novels took a delight in repulsing the reader from the protagonist and, however weird, Mayhew is consistently sympathetic.

The concision of these stories means a lack of space for supporting characters, but the few we get do make an impression. There is a particularly fun scheming Baron, coming across like a British character actor doing a Hollywood baddie, at least in my head.

The King’s Justice is the leaner novella, and sparks a little less for it. A grizzled old veteran on one last mission is not an original idea but Coriolus Blackened (Just ‘Black’ to you and me) is an interesting enough presence to spend some time snuffing out ne’er do wells with. Suffering from an old war wound of literal holes in the soul, we soon gather that Black is a fairly moral character; a killer he may be but he still finds the time to help out the odd widower in need. Unfortunately this time Black is out of his depth, a spate of lungs and livers torn from corpses portend to a new and powerful magical opponent. There are less rounded female characters here than in the sister tome, with the limited word count meaning that only Black gets fully developed. It’s this brevity that is the story’s downfall, with a cracking setup resolved far too quickly.

Of the two stories, The Augur’s Gambit functions more as a mystery, with Mayhew’s naivety accounting for the reader’s lack of information. The King’s Justice has less narrative logic for such a contrivance, though we do meet Black as he enters a town of unsuspecting villagers. This pushes the reader away from the protagonist, emphasising our distance from Black’s gloomy mission. It is only when Black takes on the case of a murdered child that we realise he is the hero that these people need, give or take a little grave bothering.

In both books the people and places burn bright and fast, aided by a film of blood, filth and corpses that attract and repulse in equal measure. But it’s the stronger The Augur’s Gambit that will linger for longer after reading, and is one world I’m disappointed Donaldson has left behind so quickly.

This review was originally published in Shoreline of Infinity Issue 6.