Fiction Reviews

The Malevolent Seven

(2023) Sebastien de Castell, Jo Fletcher Books, £20.00, 373pp, ISBN978-1-529-42277-1


Picture a wizard. Go ahead, close your eyes. There he is, see? Skinny old guy with a long straggly beard. No doubt he's wearing iridescent silk robes that couldn't protect his frail body from a light breeze. The hat's a must, too, right? Big, floppy thing, covered in esoteric symbols that would instantly show every other mage where this one gets his magic? Wouldn't want a simple steel helmet or something that might, you know, protect the part of him most needed for conjuring magical forces from being bashed in with a mace (or pretty much any household object).

Now open your eyes and let me show you what a real war mage looks like… but be warned: you're probably not going to like it, because we're violent, angry, dangerously broken people who sell our skills to the highest bidder and be damned to any moral or ethical considerations.

At least, until such irritating concepts as friendship and the end of the world get in the way.

My name is Cade Ombra, and though I currently make my living as a mercenary wonderist, I used to have a far more noble-sounding job title - until I discovered the people I worked for weren't quite as noble as I'd believed. Now I'm on the run and my only friend, a homicidal thunder mage, has invited me to join him on a suicide mission against the seven deadliest mages on the continent. Time to recruit some very bad people to help us on this job…

From the author of the four-part Greatcoats Series and the eight-part Spellslinger Series comes a bloody, fast-paced romp set in a world caught in an ongoing war between angels and demons who act rather like generals well removed from the battlefield as they can’t exist in the physical world so they recruit various people and non-people to do their bidding. One of those is Cade Ombra who narrates the story, and he is under no illusions that he is a bad guy, who has to recruit a group of bad guys in order to kill the seven deadliest mages around.  Easy? Well, not really, Cade is also under no illusions that this is going to be hard, almost suicidal, but there is something else going on here. This mission is far from straightforward, and there are deadly things going on behind the scenes, if only he can stay alive long enough to figure them out, and possibly profit from them.

But first he has to recruit the said seven. The first one is easy as he quickly gets his old mate, Corrigan, a thunder-mage to join up, but recruiting the other five will not be so easy, and so begins a mini-quest to form the seven which usually means extricating them from the deadly shenanigans they have become embroiled in before we get on to the main mission of killing the mages who want to save the world.

For me, The Malevolent Seven, was an easy read, mainly because it was my sort of book being only 365 pages long and told in 56 chapters. You do the maths, but we are not in chapters that are 30 pages long territory, and de Castell wears his chapters on his sleeve with titles ranging from “Real Mages Don’t Wear Funny Hats” (just in case you thought you had picked up a Terry Pratchett book by mistake) to titles such as “A Nasty Way to Die”, “The Client”, “Doorways”, etc., etc.  After all the action there is an Acknowledgements section which is rather strange as De Castell doesn’t acknowledge anyone apart from his wife, but rather it is sub-titled “Regarding the Various Realms of Magic and their Practitioners” explaining everything from Auroralists to Wonderists Mysteralis. Given what it is, you might expect it to appear at the start of a book, rather than the end of it.

The Malevolent Seven is also an easy read as it is pretty standard fair for this sort of book given we are in familiar territory, as it is bloody, fast-paced, full of humour, with jokes and witty banter, with a disparate group of heroes, or anti-heroes, although all of the seven aren’t all that distinct or well-defined, but The Malevolent Five probably wasn’t that great a title. Plus marks, however, have to go to de Castell for his world-building, particularly on the seedier side of the tracks and his blurred characterisation as Cade Ombra who sees himself as being clearly on the side of the demons, but good and evil come in different shades. Castell has also come up with a pretty good magic system and managed not to complicate it too much, although we do get some info-dumping from Cade at times.

To sum up The Malevolent Seven doesn’t break new ground, but if you want a bloody, frantic, grimdark novel that is an enjoyable read, and a good start to a series (presuming there is more to come) then this is the book for you.

Ian Hunter

See also Peter's take on The Malevolent Seven.


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