The Malevolent Seven by Sebastien de Castell
Sebastien de Castell’s 2023 antihero novel The Malevolent Seven has good magical action and lots of sarcastic banter. It has an emotionally tortured male main character in a world that is filled with suffering, death, betrayal and a sense of hopelessness that swamps every action. Generally, I enjoy de Castell’s work, but while this book had enough to keep me reading, ultimately, it doesn’t rank among my favorite works of his.
I say, “enough to keep me reading,” because I very nearly put this book down during the first 50 pages. I didn’t like the narrative voice of Cade, our protagonist, his constant forays into exposition, or the futility of it all. After that disappointing start, the book picked up for a bit, as Cade tries to recruit a bunch of magical mercenaries for a job, a plan that explains the book’s title in case you hadn’t made the connection earlier.
Cade, our narrator, is a “wonderist,” their world’s word for “wizard.” The magical system of this world is interesting, and most interesting is the direct interaction of godly forces, the Celestine, and demonics, like Cade’s “agent” Tenebris, from whom he buys infernal spells. Generally, wonderists use magic by drawing energy from different realms into this one and manipulating it. And there are lots of different realms. In addition, Cade connects with some non-human folks from non-human realms.
Cade and his crew work for Ascendant Lucien, who says he is guided by the Celestines. Lucien is a vicious, hypocritical monster and murderer. Cade plans to murder him. He fails. Cade is also on the run from a group called the Glorian Justiciars, who are humans working directly for the Celestine, functioning as Celestine law enforcement and mostly executing wonderists. When Cade’s murder plan fails, he and one partner, Corrigan, who conjures lightning, set out with a newly minted Blood Witch and her pet jackal to recruit a “coven” of wonderists to challenge seven brothers in the north. The brothers allegedly hold a powerful magical apparatus that lets magicians change their magical orientation if they want to.
Cade and his group are clearly meant to be antiheroes, and that’s fine—except Cade doesn’t completely work as an antihero, because he keeps making the heroic choice. Is this growth? In the context of Cade’s world, it’s self-destructiveness carried to a nearly-suicidal level—and he’s stayed alive this long, so I was never convinced by the character. Mostly, Cade just seems bitter, and bitterness needs nuance.
One thing I liked a lot; the mechanism the Celestines use to communicate with humans, and Cade’s descriptions of it. I found it beautiful, beguiling and plausible. And as I said, I loved the magic. I liked the dashing rat-mage and the character of Alice. Otherwise, the relationships, betrayals and philosophical differences felt familiar. So did the banter and the snark. The arguments between Cade and Corrigan revealed little that was new, and neither did the constant psychoanalyzing of Cade by the others. Cade’s secret, when it was revealed, wasn’t very secret; nor was the conspiracy he uncovers at the end, although it is a solid set-up for future books.
Perhaps my disappointment can be summed up by this; this felt like a formulaic set-up for a new series, without a lot of energy or emotion. There is nothing wrong with the book, but nothing compelling either.
This one wasn’t for me, but your mileage may vary. The magic system is good and the magical sequences rock. It may work for you. For me, a bitter character needs more nuance.
I’m a huge fan of Sebastien de Castell’s GREATCOATS series, as my reviews of those books will show. So I was greatly looking forward to his newest work, The Malevolent Seven, as the publisher’s blurb (see below) seemed to show it had a bit of that same wry tone to it. And while the new novel does share that voice to some degree, as well as a few other elements (particularly in the banter area), I was less enamored with both the characters and the style/structure of the novel and less emotionally moved by the events. That said, while the book overall wasn’t quite my cup of tea, I can see a lot of people enjoying it as a “beach read” sort of book if you like those sorts of works.
The title makes clear the general premise of the book if you’ve seen The Magnificent Seven (if you haven’t you absolutely should, the original preferably). There’s a town being terrorized, and somebody is putting together a group of Not-Heroes-At-All-Really-Not-At-All as mercenaries to fight the group terrorizing the town. We start with our main character, in this case the magic-user (“wonderist” in the terminology of the novel) Cade, and as the book progresses, he picks up the other members of the group one by one. Once the gang’s all together, it all culminates in a big battle. To fill in a few of the details:
The book opens with Cade and his wonderist colleague/quasi-friend (these folks don’t have “friends” per se) working as mercenaries and destroying a city for Lucien, an absolutely awful lord, one who is bloodthirsty and traffics in humans, including children (those may be his good qualities). Cade, who despite his constant protestations, has at least a partial conscience, plans on killing Lucien, but things go awry, and he finds himself forced into the position of getting the above-mentioned gang together for the above-mentioned reasons. He begins with Corrigan and a just-created “blood witch” from the camp, and then it’s off on the recruitment journey, which includes a trip into Hell itself. All of this is further complicated by Cade’s secret past, greater forces that inhabit other dimensions, and the schemes within schemes within schemes driving the events.
To start with the positive, the magic system, which I won’t detail here, is pretty intriguing, and the extra-dimensional aspects involving the “Celestines” is fascinating. The book moves at a fast clip (more on that later as well). The banter, when it works (more on that later) can be laugh out loud, and I particularly liked the relationship/non-relationship between Cade and Corrigan. And one of the characters — the Rat Mage — when given time to shine, was a true joy to spend time with.
As for the negatives, which admittedly for me outweighed the positives, if I were to try and generalize their nature, I’d say the book felt more like a sketch of a novel, or an early draft, rather than a fully honed work. The explanations of the magic system, how this world works, the relationships amongst the dimensions, etc. too often felt like brief info dumps that interrupted the story’s flow so the reader could get whatever information was necessary for them to have at the time. The book’s fast pace, while a plus in some ways, also felt a detriment as I never really felt the group as a group, never got a real full sense of most of the characters, and several of the characters felt under-utilized. The banter when it worked was fun, but I honestly can’t say it worked more than half the time; the rest of the time it felt either forced or perfunctory, and the comic tone often felt a bit off amidst the truly grim events (readers’ mileage will certainly vary on this one). And the premise of bad-folks-doing-sometime-with-a-good-result never really felt real to me. Yes, Cade and the others have done/do some horrible things, say “funny” things at horrible times, but with Cade especially it just all felt very surface. Despite (or perhaps because of) all his protestations of being a bad guy (and there were a lot of protestations), it never rang true. Finally, I admit to feeling a bit uncomfortable with the portrayal of the female characters.
While I confess to being disappointed with The Malevolent Seven (I’m a huge fan of de Castell’s GREATCOATS series), the book was a fast read with some enjoyable moments. I can’t say I enjoyed it all the way through, but it never felt like a slog, and I never considered not finishing it. I wouldn’t qualify it as “bad” book, just not a “me” book. And even despite that, because de Castell has proven himself so many other times, I’ll probably give a sequel a shot if one appears, which is certainly possible given the ending here.
We seem to be on the same page. Yeah, the depiction of some (at least two) of the women characters was… well, awkward.
Even great storytellers don’t always hit it out of the park, though.
Yep, which is why I’m willing to give a sequel a shot
Thanks for the reviews you two. I put the book on my TBR as soon as I saw ads for it. I’ll likely give it a try, hopefully the fun elements will make it worthwhile.