John Gwynne’s The Faithful and the Fallen and the Pleasures of Genre

I recently had the pleasure of reading John Gwynne’s epic fantasy quartet (or tetralogy) The Faithful and the Fallen. I’d been intending to read it for a while, and when I did, I was blown away by how effectively Gwynne managed to marshal all of the requisite epic fantasy elements into a story that kept me up past my bedtime for several nights running.

The series’ central protagonist is Corban, a young man who (of course), finds out that he is the one destined to become the savior of his world. He is joined by the requisite band of epic heroes, including a renegade angel, his sister, a wolven (basically a giant, wolf-like creature), as well as sundry others. He is opposed by all the traditional types of villains, including another renegade angel, a brutal pirate captain, and a god of destruction bent on bringing the entire world under his dominion.

Narratively, The Faithful and the Fallen hits all the right notes: the epic quest narrative (there are actually several), the titanic clash between good and evil, deeds of villainy and heroism, soaring triumphs and dark moments of despair. There are the various fantasy archetypes already mentioned. And it’s solidly told, with each character coming to inhabit their own space; even the villains get a few chapters of their own. As a result, we are drawn inexorably into this world, caught up in the sweep of the great and terrible events that are unfolding right before our eyes.

What really struck me as I read the series was how much it was able to accomplish within the confines of the genre of epic fantasy. Indeed, in many ways the series is a textbook epic, hitting all of the right notes in all the right places. There were a few key places where The Faithful and the Fallen colors outside of the expected lines, but for the most part there weren’t too many surprises in terms of either plot or character. There was a bit of a plot twist toward the end of the series, but nothing on the scale that we have seen in other epic series of late. All in all, The Faithful and the Fallen is exactly what it sets out to be: a thoroughly entertaining fantasy epic.

That is not in any way an insult. Quite the opposite. Sometimes it seems to me that we valourize works of fantasy that somehow transcend the perceived “limits” or “shortcomings” of fantasy as a whole. Those who praise A Song of Ice and Fire, for example, frequently do so in terms that emphasize its iconoclastic tendencies, its willingness to focus on the blood and gore and drudgery of the medieval fantasy setting and on the foibles and shortsightedness of humanity. This line of praise (and criticism) has extended to its television adaptation, and it has, I would argue, reshaped the expectations that many people have about what constitutes successful (or at least “interesting”) epic fantasy.

What series like Gwynne’s show us, however, is that it is okay if you want to write, or read, works of fantasy that don’t really break the rules. It’s okay if you want a story about a young person who sets out to save the world from a dark and pressing evil and has to journey through all of the parts of his world to do so. It’s okay if you want to have a fair amount of certainty that most of your main characters won’t die (though a few major ones do in The Faithful and the Fallen). It really is okay if you want to read an old-fashioned epic fantasy that is a celebration of the essential nobility of the human spirit rather than an exposure of the darker, more cynical parts of the human condition. It’s okay to take pleasure in the conventions of genre.

Indeed, that’s precisely the point of a designation like genre in the first place. Working within its confines lets us know what we’re in for. And, in a case like The Faithful and the Fallen, or for that matter any number of other epics (Terry Brooks’ Shannara series comes to mind), part of the pleasure is in feeling those familiar beats. To my mind, it’s about time we stopped feeling ashamed of the pleasures of genre and instead embraced them as a key part of why we read fantasy.

Who’s with me?