Title: The King's Justice: Two Novellas
Author: Stephen R. Donaldson
Genre: Fantasy, Collection
Rating: ★ ★ ★
Black Mysteries and Uncertain Augaries, Stephen R. Donaldson's The King's Justice: Two Novellas.
Donaldson presents two recent tales in this collection. The King's Justice is a detective story written in the omniscient present tense. It's set in a secondary world where a magically "shaped" man arrives at a crossroads town to fulfill a 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.
The Western and frontiers-like tenor of the story is appealing, saturated as it is with a Robert E. Howard-esque quality that brings to mind the tales of the Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane. But instead of dealing with the more mundane supernatural evils with which that Puritan regularly contended, Black’s world is infused with more fanciful magic. It's a world only recently brought to a tenuous equilibrium from the turmoil of past wars, the background of which is dispensed in small morsels as the shaped man conducts interviews to glean the information he requires to fulfil said purpose.
There is a nostalgic element to the story that flies in the face of deliberate and constant attempts by many modern fantasy novelists at a subversion of old tropes. This story is neither experimental nor au courant with contemporary attitudes. Instead, it grabs with its very simplicity and investigative-fuelled pace. The varied interviews with individuals during the course of the investigation are sparse yet vivid, sometimes reading like folklore-ish reports and infused with moments of pathos. The peak of these interviews is one particular account that recalls some of the whimsical yet weighty stories Neil Gaiman would have penned in The Sandman.
The character Black himself remains largely mysterious, and there is even what feels like a paucity in the sketches of intentions and motives of other characters. Or perhaps it's better to say 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 the shaped man's investigation. The immediacy of Black's perspective is all-important and consequently the focus. It's an old-fashioned tale harking back to sword-and-sorcery roots: simple, well-plotted, and enjoyable.
The second and longer novella in the collection is The Augur's Gambit. Another mystery, and very different. It's told in the more intimate first person with an almost confessional tone. The highly stylised prose also brings to mind fantasists of old. This time with a dream-like ambiance redolent of E. R. Eddison in the indulgence of lexicon utilised, where Donaldson prefers a more lush and formal word-stock given the choice.
Gothic in flavour with its descriptions of stone hallways, secret passageways and a taut, almost oppressive skein of ghostly mystery running throughout, the story concerns a hierophont whose general but definite prognostications of an island kingdom's doom compels the queen to take certain action. Yet, her unfathomable machinations seem to court the very disaster she wishes to forestall. It's the gradual, solid development of the hierophant that is the highlight – 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 must needs pay an exorbitant price.
Despite its unhurried pace, the story engrosses with enigmatic clues as to the origin of the kingdom, lending it an ever so slightly mythic quality. Every new element adds to a background that hints at a complexity with underpinnings that seem to be both scientific and fantastic in nature, but are never quite made conclusive. As layers of intricacy are unravelled, this fable-like narrative turns out to be gripping and thoughtful for the questions it poses on the dilemmas brought by change, and the perhaps deceptive allure of a Utopian-like but, ultimately, stagnant state of being.
Both tales are well-crafted mysteries written with quiet confidence, and more impressive for what they leave unsaid so that some of their speculative elements continue to linger. A solid, two-story collection that will be of interest both to long-standing Donaldson enthusiasts and to those who wish a short introduction to the author.