Book Review: “A Time of Dread” (by John Gwynne)

As soon as I began reading John Gwynne’s series The Faithful and the Fallen, I fell in love. This was epic fantasy in the finest old tradition, full of nobility and heroism, tragedy and sacrifice. As with all good books, I felt a little devastated at the end, knowing that a truly great fantasy saga had come to an end.

I was, needless to say, very excited indeed to see that he was at work on a sequel series, one that takes place roughly a hundred years later. So excited, in fact, that I was actually able to finish the book in just a few days after receiving it in the mail.

A Time of Dread focuses on four characters: the Bleda, a hostage taken to ensure his mother’s good behaviour; Riv, a hot-headed young woman struggling to become a warrior; Drem, a young man with a mysterious past who lives with his father; and Sig, a giantess and one of the few who can still remember the days of the first series of novels. Each of them finds themselves caught up in the dark times in which they live.

The Banished Lands have changed a great deal since the days when Corban was the Bright Star, struggling against the Black Sun and the forces of the demon lord Asroth. The Ben-Elim, seemingly humanity’s saviours, have turned into brutal dictators. Led by the Lord Protector Israfil and his faithful retainers, they enforce a puritanical rule on all who live under their dominion. Meanwhile, their sworn enemies the Kadoshim are decimated but far from defeated, and they have begun to scheme and plot for their return. Led by their chieftain Gulla, they plan to finish what Asroth began.

The novel is a little more tightly focused than its predecessors, due in part both to the more limited number of characters and the very different world they inhabit. The novel explores what happens after the ending of a traditional epic fantasy, in which the forces of good have managed to defeat those of evil. In Gwynne’s universe, the battle against the forces of darkness is never truly over, for it always tends to regroup, determined to launch a fresh assault. Throughout the novel, all four of the characters must contend with the fact that the stability and rules that have governed the world for over a century are coming to an end.

In many ways, A Time of Dread reminds me a bit of what Tolkien had envisioned as a sequel to The Lord of the Rings, in which men fell once more into dark and sinister designs, with cults rising up and children playing at Orcs. In this new, unsettling, and often quite terrifying world that Gwynne has crafted, men become beasts, humans and their angelic counterparts breed, and everything seems to teeter on a knife’s edge.

The characters are, of course, a little old-fashioned in their heroism. I say that not as a criticism but instead to highlight how refreshing it is to see women and men in a fantasy novel who aren’t completely idiots or shits (I’m looking at you, GRRM). Although there are elements of grimdark in Gwynne’s work–it is called A Time of Dread, after all–the novel never seems to lose sight of the fundamental humanity and nobility at the heart of its characters. These are people that you can actually cheer for and like, ones that you can suffer with, whose joys and sorrows that you can share.

One of the things that I’ve loved about Gwynne’s work is the fact that his heroines are as kickass as the heroes. These are women who know how to hold their own and who can fight just as well as any of the men (and often better). Sig the giantess was probably my favourite character in the entire book, but Riv is definitely a close second. Like any good epic heroine, she has her own journey to take, and there are things about her that set her apart from her fellows, though the most important of those remain unrevealed until almost the very end.

And, of course, no review of Gwynne’s book would be complete without mentioning the crows. Rab the albino is one of the novel’s more rascally characters, and it’s good to see that the wily crow from the original series is both still alive and has managed to produce a rather large and unruly flock of descendants. This particular character, while only tangential to the narrative, offers a moment of brightness and levity to an otherwise very dark setting.

All in all, I really quite enjoyed this new outing from Gwynne. I do feel it is worth noting, though, that this is an incredibly violent and visceral world. While this may not be to everyone’s taste, I do think that it is true to the world-building that he established in his previous series. The Banished Lands are not a place for the weak, and it takes a great deal of strength and violence just to stay alive for another day.

Generically, Of Blood and Bone feels a bit more like a rousing adventure yarn than a sprawling epic, and to me that’s just fine. Gwynne is someone who has a firm grasp of his story and the best way in which to tell it. Reading this, you almost get the sense that you are living in the midst of one of the great tales of the ancient north, full of monster and bitter ice, blood and steel and dark magic, with just a bit of Christian lore (there are angels and demons, after all) thrown into the mix to make things interesting. I can guarantee you that there is not one moment in this novel that is at all boring. It keeps you riveted from the first page to the last, and it leaves you panting for more.

I’m already hard at work reading the follow-up, A Time of Blood, and I love it already. Stay tuned for my review!