Wallie Smith, reincarnated as Shonsu of the Seventh Sword, and struggling to fulfill the Goddess’ mandate, has gathered a small group of talented supporters, but ruined his reputation in the process. Now, he has to recruit an army composed of fellow swordsmen – who all despise him.
I don’t recall why I didn’t pick the Seventh Sword series up when I first saw it years ago. Possibly because of its ‘sidewise’ concept, but more likely due that that bane of youth – lack of funds. It’s just as well, however. If I’d read it back then, I doubt I’d have become as much of a Dave Duncan fan as I did.
The series started well enough – Duncan’s usual light, character-oriented fantasy a quick setup, and off we went. Duncan seemed ready to jump in feet first on addressing slavery in ‘the World’. By book two, however, he seemed to forget the issue. In this third book, he finds his ‘remember slavery’ Post-It, but seems to have forgotten what he meant to do about it. Wallie owns Jja, a slave whom he loves and treats well – except sometimes. There’s a rough attempt to blame that on his Shonsu instincts, but it never amounts to much, and certainly not enough to be credible. Duncan’s wrapup at the end doesn’t do much about the issue, and it just fades away.
Part of the problem is that Duncan, a character-focused writer, makes a mess of his protagonist in this book. Wallie’s reactions simply cease to be credible. Despite his deep and abiding love for Jja, he suddenly focuses on a new woman with all the self-control of a twelve-year old – and an immature one at that. Even factoring in Shonsu’s hormones, it’s just not credible. Lightly influenced by this, Wallie’s character undergoes a couple of bizarre contortions before suddenly reverting with an ‘all’s well that ends well’. It reads like a section from some other version of the book swapped in.
It’s not just philosophy and personality that fall apart. The final resolution of the Goddess’ task is vaguely signposted through the book, but important parts are not, and the ending just doesn’t satisfy. There are a number of possible solutions, but Wallie appears uncharacteristically dense until late in the book. The surprise twists and turns feel more like authorial intervention than organic plot growth. Some of the technology development chains feel under-researched or under-considered. The fact that the World extends well beyond the small space we’ve seen also doesn’t quite accord with earlier description, and suggests late-book rethink.
As has been true throughout the series, the role of the Goddess is problematic. She intervenes a lot. She needs Wallie to make his own decisions, won’t promise miracles, etc, but she’s there any time he screws up. There are other gods as well (Wallie’s opponents have one), but there’s never any real discussion of how they fit together. And when the Goddess gives him another chance at decision, but at a tragically high cost, he literally chops to pieces the men she used as her instruments, with no more than a sullen glare in her direction.
All told, a disappointing original ending to a series that was never great. Happily, there’s now a fourth book, written later. I hope that one can resurrect the series, but I fear it’s too late to do more than bring it back to the region of ‘fair but missable’.
The book also suffers from Open Road’s maddeningly inconsistent proof-reading. The first two books were okay; this one has OCR errors sprinkled throughout.