Nathan’s Review of The Malevolent Seven by Sebastien de Castell
Expected Publication: 16 May 2023
Series: Standalone (?)
Genre: Dark Fantasy, Comedic Fantasy
*Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.
‘Seven powerful mages want to make the world a better place. We’re going to kill them first.’
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 . . .
Review of The Malevolent Seven
You know when you read a book and it is so similar to another book that it becomes throws you off? That was my experience while reading The Malevolent Seven, Sebastien de Castell’s latest novel about a group of villainous mages who have to team up to destroy (or perhaps even save) the world. If this basic premise sounds familiar to you, it is because it is nearly the same plot as Cameron Johnson’s The Maleficent Seven (published by Angry Robot Books).
The short of my review is that while I enjoyed my time with The Malevolent Seven, you are pretty much better off picking up Johnton’sThe Maleficent Seven, as that is by far the stronger of the two similarly titled and premised books.
Having said that (and I’ll get to the book’s shortcomings in a moment) there is actually a lot that works well in The Malevolent Seven. Cade Ombra, who narrates the book in a first-person perspective, is a genuinely fascinating character. He sees himself as being evil, but in practice his moral compass is much more complicated than that. Cade, along with the cadre of other characters that de Castell populates his world with, challenge the binary of “heroes” and “villains”, because it really is all a matter of perspective. We are all balancing our own individual needs and wants with some of the needs of the people around us; sometimes our own needs and selfish desires win out, and sometimes we do what is good for the collective. None of us are “pure” heroes or “pure” villains in our everyday lives, and de Castell uses Cade to explore the transitory nature of heroism and villainy.
But de Castell doesn’t get bogged down in the philosophizing. He lets his characters express the complexity of the themes of the book through a propulsive and very fast-paced plot. There is never a moment in the book where you feel bored or wish something would happen. Something is always happening on the page as we are immediately thrust into Cade’s head. In a lot of ways this works with the comedic and intentionally unhinged tone and timbre of the book. Characters are constantly spinning and moving as de Castell continuously throws new balls in the air for his characters to deal with.
On the other hand, the madcap pace at times works as a detriment to the story. Some readers will revel in the speed of the plot, but there were times where I just wanted to take some time to breathe. It seemed that de Castell didn’t fully trust himself (or his readers) to hold our attention. This leaves certain elements underdeveloped, and some characters whose presence exists merely so that de Castell could get his titular play on words. Particularly some of the “Seven” introduced later in the book feel personality-less, and if you would have subbed out their names I probably wouldn’t have even noticed.
At the end of the day, how significant of a problem these are depends on what you look for in a book. If you are looking for a good time (this would make for a perfect summer beach read), this is the book for you. However, if you are looking for something with just a bit more depth beyond the superficial, there won’t be a lot to chew on here. But again, if you are looking for a book full of fun, definitely give this one a look.
Not only are the characters sarcastic and witty, but the world that de Castell has built here is a whole heck of a lot of fun. There is still a lot to be explored (the book seemed to indicate this might be the first in a series, but I couldn’t find confirmation of that anywhere), but the way that de Castell was able to craft a pretty complicated magic system while explaining it efficiently and succinctly is a work of art. The magic system is (at it simplest) a fun play on an elemental magic system, but there are also angels/demons, multiple dimensions, portals, and so much more. With everything else going on in the book you would think the extensive worldbuilding would weigh everything down, but all of the worldbuilding comes together pretty well.
So, despite all of this, why the middling tone at the beginning of the review? I already talked a bit about pacing above, and the pacing did muddy the waters quite a bit particularly in regards to what de Castell was actually trying to say about heroism and villainy. I’m not expecting a treatise on “good vs. evil” here, but there were certain elements of the main conflict that were underdeveloped to the point where I had a hard time following the various alliances, betrayals, twists, and turns. Johnston’s The Maleficent Seven did a much better job of giving us the “pro” and “con” list of what each side wanted out of the conflict.
The other big thing that didn’t land for me was the book’s sense of humor. This is a fun and funny book that is trying for the laugh-out-loud humor of King of the Wyld combined with the sarcastic cynicism of Joe Abercrombie. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t quite land. A lot of the humor is awkward and unfunny, and at times made fun of things that made me a bit uncomfortable (the most blatant example being a lot of jokes about sex slavery in the beginning of the novel). The humor starts to even out as the book progresses, but a lot of the early “jokes” left a bad taste in my mouth.
Concluding Thoughts: If you are looking for you next fast-paced and humorous fantasy, check out The Malevolent Seven. It is chock full of some really great ideas, some strong worldbuilding, and a fantastic main character. The humor and tone of the book won’t work for everyone (it didn’t for me) and some readers might get annoyed by a lack of depth to many of the characters. Things take a turn for the better at the end of the book as the plot builds in intensity and intrigue, but if you are struggling to get that far, I recommend Cameron Johnston’s The Maleficent Seven for a similarly plotted and far stronger book.