1882 Blood magic, rat mages, and righteousness

The Malevolent Seven
By Sebastien de Castell

London: Jo Fletcher Books, 2023
$35.00 / 9781529422771

Reviewed by Sheldon Goldfarb


Full disclosure: Sebastien de Castell is a friend of mine. We met at a writer’s group several years ago just after he published his first novel, Traitor’s Blade, a swashbuckling, sword-fighting fantasy. I read it then, even though I am not really into swashbuckling, sword-fighting fantasy, and was grabbed by the opening page, which is all about what happens when you fulfill your greatest desire–and find out it’s not really what you expected it to be. This is not just swordplay, I thought; it’s about life.  

And now Sebastien has published another novel with the same sort of opening: Picture a wizard, it begins, and we all see Merlin in our mind’s eye, only for the hero-narrator to tell us, no, no, I’m a wizard (or wonderist as he prefers to name himself), and I’m nothing like that. For one thing, I’m a bad guy. We proceed to learn that our hero Cade (Cade Ombra, a Jungian shadow figure?) is one of a band of mercenary wonderists busy fighting wars, which is what wonderists do on an imaginary planet much like Earth, except an Earth that’s been blasted by too much wonderist warfare, creating places like the Blastlands, where all is red soot (blood soot, Cade calls it), and the ordinary mortals who live there live a bleak life, yet one they are attached to (or addicted to).

We don’t see much of ordinary people, though; we are all caught up in the wonderist world of combative magic. There’s Corrigan with his thunder magic, Galass with her blood magic, the odd rat magician (I’m not a rat! I’m a rat mage!) who can command rats and who has the Mozartean name Aradeus, perhaps reflecting his classical gallantry and good manners, which Cade quite admires. And yet these are the bad guys. They don’t really seem so bad. They swear a lot and go off to battle, but they seem a lot better than the forces of Heaven, who self-righteously spread their gospel around the world, smiting evildoers.

But we hardly ever see the Heavenly hosts; we see more of Tenebris, the demon in the service of the Lords Devilish who sells infernal spells to Cade. There’s even a march through Hell, with damned souls grabbing at the wonderists, all as an escape from the Heavenly forces that seek out Cade in particular. Or are they herding Cade?

Things turn out not to be as they seem, more than once. Are Heaven and Hell actually in cahoots? And is that a good thing? Needed to fight off an alien invasion?  Or–but I don’t want to spoil things…  And there’s a big battle at the end that leads to–I won’t tell you that either. And through it all there are nuggets of philosophy. We are all captives of our bodies, says the goat-turned-man in the castle at the end.  It sounds like profundity, but maybe it’s just malevolent propaganda.  No, says the rat magician, we will free you, but do they want to be freed?

And why does the rat magician care about the goat-man’s freedom? I thought he was one of the bad guys.

And is there such a thing as freedom anyway? Cade seeks his freedom and yet is lonely as a result, missing the old song he used to hear and then longing for a new family among the wonderists. In all his seeking, is he really choosing freely, or are there powerful forces pushing him along? He fears the latter and it makes him cry.

Author Sebastien de Castell

And why has his old mentor lost her eyes?  She guides him (one of those external forces acting on him), and yet is it wise to take advice from the sightless?

Then there’s the demon who has been trained to be a Heavenly type of magistrate, but who sides with the wonderists, and who declares she can be whatever she chooses to be, an interesting example of self-identifying perhaps. And is there free will? Can we be whatever we choose to be? Or are we at the mercy of forces we cannot begin to understand?

And there is the beauty of unknowing and the achievement of purposelessness. But against that the beauty of the Heavenly song and the devotion to a righteous cause. Which is the right path?  Mostly the book seems to pull us away from righteous causes. It is a bit of a parable for our times: there is too much devotion to righteousness and fixing others. But is purposelessness the best solution? Perhaps you can fight against righteousness. Perhaps you can fight against righteousness, but isn’t that being righteous too? Cade struggles to decide. In a world of Heaven against Hell, which side are you on? Do you have to choose? Cade looks for a third way. Will he find it? Will there be a sequel?

And through it all the ordinary people just want to be left alone in their struggles. Maybe all this fighting over causes is just a burden on the world, something that amuses the wonderists but has nothing to do with everyday struggles. Of course, if you are a wonderist, that’s all you know.

In any case, the novel by Vancouver’s de Castell leads you to strange places—and thoughts—and even to some mockery of storytelling. Cade tells Corrigan a nice story to explain why he joined his side. Be nice if it were true, he thinks later. But storytellers, like wonderists, have to live where they are.

One character in the book justifies helping the aliens (or is it the forces of Heaven and Hell?) by saying the world is an awful place and things need to change. Human beings need to be taken in hand to let others rule in their place. Gods perhaps. Cade hates this character more than anyone else. And Cade is most protective of another character who has suddenly been saddled with the most dangerous magic there is, blood magic, which can destroy the magician and everyone around them.

If there is a message in the book, maybe it is there: that those with the most righteous, absolute dedication are the dangers, and we have to protect those whose magic is hard to control.



Sheldon Goldfarb

Sheldon Goldfarb is the author of The Hundred-Year Trek: A History of Student Life at UBC (Heritage House, 2017), reviewed by Herbert Rosengarten. He has been the archivist for the UBC student society (the AMS) for more than twenty years and has also written a murder mystery and two academic books on the Victorian author William Makepeace Thackeray. His murder mystery, Remember, Remember (Bristol: UKA Press), was nominated for an Arthur Ellis crime writing award in 2005. His latest book, Sherlockian Musings: Thoughts on the Sherlock Holmes Stories (London: MX Publishing, 2019), was reviewed in the BC Review by Patrick McDonagh. Originally from Montreal, Sheldon has a history degree from McGill University, a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba, and two degrees from the University of British Columbia: a PhD in English and a master’s degree in archival studies. Editor’s note: Sheldon Goldfarb has recently reviewed books by Esmeralda Cabral, Bruce Whiteman & Mireille Silcoff, Nick Thran, Susan McIver, James GiffordAlan TwiggYosef Wosk & Nachum Tim Gidal, and he has contributed a comedic poem, The Ramen, based on Poe’s “The Raven.”



The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

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