The King's Justice by Stephen Donaldson

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The King's Justice by Stephen Donaldson

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A very satisfying novella, as elements of dark fantasy collide with revenge Westerns and provide for a nicely meaty little read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 128 Date: June 2016
Publisher: Gollancz
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781473214491

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Through the forests and the driving rain rides Black, a man never more aptly named. He's approaching Settle's Crossways, although that is of no concern to him, for he is merely following the scent of evil. All purpose and little pause or scruple, he is on the trail of a killer, and Settle's Crossways, as luck would have it, is in need of the King's Justice. Black seems able to control people's thoughts and deeds (and go without paying his way) just by rubbing an arm under his permanently-worn black cape, but when he sounds out the parity in the town between the churches of light and dark, he knows what exists there may take him to a darker place than even the last wars regarding the balance between those elemental forces – and to a place where he really cannot take the control he's used to…

It's good to see the fantasy novella getting a boost, and from such an unlikely source as Stephen R Donaldson. I'd long given up on a lot of fantasy, purely from the need to wait til an author carked it to be sure of getting the full story in one go (and even then seeing new authors inherit estates and carry on churning out franchise titles willy-nilly). But as I've already been frustrated by two novellas this year from K J Parker, and found a Donaldson published simultaneously with this to be more than a little problematic, was I really on to a good thing with spending a couple of short hours on these pages?

Well, yes, as it turned out. The situation is not hugely new – small, troubled settlement, not welcome enough until it's almost too late to a newly-arrived black-wearing stranger. We're halfway between fantasy and a Western movie with that summary, but we're in a welcomingly rich fantasy world. Magic is a feature but is a word never used, and the whole set-up and circumstance makes a great character of Black, who, in his steadfast purpose and very nature is almost half-Golem. The other great benefit to the book, I found, came from the simple choice of making it present tense. It takes it from being something that we pick up and read as a legend, and towards something that is a simple tale of real life for Black. The difference is huge, and the honesty and veracity the book professes like this is a big plus point.

I suppose those words such as 'big' and 'simple' create a miniature elephant in the room, but I'm happy to report this is nowhere near as simple as it may be, and does cause as much satisfaction as one of those bigger books. The world-building is almost subtle, for a change, and what we learn of the prior battles for balance between light and dark, as exemplified by the parallel churches, and the touches referring to other lands and their other mythologies, prove that there is a lot more going on than what is merely on the page. That's not however a call to turn this into another ten-book cycle – this is more than fine enough as it is.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

Sharp Ends by Joe Abercrombie is further grist to my mill – stories that spin-off from a trilogy and more of other novels, but here it has enough to drag you to the bigger works as well as provide entertaining examples of the short fantasy form.

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