The Augur's Gambit by Stephen Donaldson

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The Augur's Gambit by Stephen Donaldson

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: I found this really struggled to get out of a rut of world-building conversation; but when it did you see flashes of why the author is so esteemed.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 192 Date: June 2016
Publisher: Gollancz
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781473214477

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In a King Learesque procedure, the Queen Inimica Phlegathon DeVry IV has met with each of her five barons in turn, and seduced them all into accepting her proposal of marriage. What does she mean by this bizarre procedure, which only seems to set them all against the other, especially when the fourth to meet with her blabs to the fifth before his turn? And why does the final baron's efforts for his Queen before then rest on sending ships to the East, the likes of which have never ever returned? And what is in store for the island Queendom, when the royal family's own magical oracle can only see the end of their civilisation?

The world of fantasy readers have to sit up and pay attention when the likes of Stephen R Donaldson produces a new book, and for the summer of 2016 he's gifted us with not one but two little hardbacks. This reads for a few hours, so isn't as little as some books out there, but by the nature of fantasy and Donaldson's previous – a two-, a five- and of course a ten-book series – it's downright bijou. It's self-contained, it features secret destinies, royal-cum-political shenanigans and the efforts of one man to see into the future – what is not to like?

Unfortunately, for me, I think, quite a bit, especially at first. The society the book rides upon is clearly one of dramatic interest – the group of barons forming who-knows-what connections to do who-knows-what to who-knows-what ends; the fortune-teller hiding behind the arras to listen in on the royal meetings; and his connections with the heir to the throne. But beyond that I found the book almost a struggle at times. The first scene is fine, but the second is an extended conversation our augur has with someone where they try to establish the entire back story – of the island, of their civilisation, and of what is to come, and this lengthy conversation isn't enough to hang any drama or much enjoyment on. It does further the story inasmuch as our titular character understands a little more, as of course do we, but at this stage if we're not completely on board we don't have enough interest in what we learn. It doesn't have enough immediate bearing on our human characters – it's regarding the character of the society, which I think could only be of interest to the regular fantasy reader.

That, and the pattern repeating of another royal chatter then another delve into the truth for our hero, suggests this is merely an exercise in world building. I'm not expecting every page to have a spell or monster or battle, far from it, but for the passing (or lapsed, in my case) fan of fantasy, this concern for the conceit of the circumstance as opposed to the people living it is indicative of why those who dislike the genre do so. Things aren't helped by the vocabulary being rich in the extent of it all being a courtly, high-falutin' style, meaning no one character stands out from the norm.

And yet… much as the entrails our man uses, there is enough in there to suggest the life and future connected to it. Arcane tests in subterranean, blood-spattered laboratories, twists to what we think of how deep everyone is involved in things… Eventually we get something the genre can bring, the drama and hefty activity of people needing to put their all on the line to get their intended outcome. Certainly the second half of this book is as it should be, even if perhaps there isn't quite the sting in the tale you are led to expect. Bear with it that far and fantasy fans will be happy – but I do think that for them, indeed for anyone, the first half is just too talky, with too much conversation between people with too little agency in the story covering people we never really meet, to make it an unqualified success.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

More political machinations and sham marriages can be had in Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay, which may well focus you on a land a lot closer to home than the book here.

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Buy The Augur's Gambit by Stephen Donaldson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Augur's Gambit by Stephen Donaldson at


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