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

Warning: Some spoilers follow.

It is a time of great darkness and unrest in the Banished Lands.

Bleda, the young warrior of the Sirak, struggles with his feelings for the half-Ben-Elim-half-human Riv, even as she contends with the consequences of her revealed heritage. The warrior Drem escapes from the horrors of the north, only to find that the battle has just begun. And, on the other side of the battle, the sorceress and priestess Fritha attempts to gain her vengeance against Drem and against those that betrayed her and cost her the life of her child.

As with its predecessor, the action here is non-stop. The novel picks up right where its predecessor leaves off, and we follow the characters as they all perform their parts in the forthcoming clash between the Ben-Elim and the Kadoshim. We witness their trials and their victories, watch men and women killed brutally in battle and, by the end of the novel, we feel as if we have endured all of this with the characters. Part of t his has to do with Gwynne’s impeccable eye for good pacing, but just as much stems from the fact that he manages to imbue each of his characters with their own individual traits and perspectives that make them worthy of our respect.

If anything, this installment in the series is even bleaker than its predecessor, with our heroes caught in terrible situations by the end, with hope nowhere in sight. More than that, though, the novel does at times stray into the horrific, particularly when we see the many experiments that Fritha conducts on those who have fallen into her clutches. Though the novel doesn’t go into too much detail about the actual process by which she creates new hybrid creatures from the dismembered parts of old ones, the results of such things are frightening enough.

Despite her barbaric experiments, A Time of Blood allows us inside Fritha’s head for large parts of the story. Through the novel, we learn a lot about her backstory, and it is finally explained why it is that she bears the Ben-Elim such a powerful grudge and why she remains so determined to see them destroyed. Given how we have already seen how unbending Ben-Elim justice can be, and how willing they are to sacrifice the lives of those humans who are supposedly under their protection, one can see why she would be so willing to turn her considerable military and magical talents against them. That being said, she still commits some truly heinous acts throughout the story, and though we may come closer to understanding her and her motives, but it is also true that we continue to regard her with horror and fascinated revulsion.

Given how ably A Time of Blood delves into the psychology and motivations of one of its main antagonists, I was also particularly struck by the ways in which the novel explores the themes of identity and loyalty. All of the characters, good and bad alike, contend with the demands placed upon them by their particular social situations. All of them bear the scars of their pasts, and each and every one–even, perhaps especially Fritha–has seen the sorts of loss that would have broken a lesser being.

And, of course, their identities tie in with their loyalties, and Riv in particular feels the bite of this as she has to decide whether her identity as a halfbreed means that she should identify more with the Ben-Elim or with her human counterparts. And given the fact that the Ben-Elim are either notoriously unbending and puritanical (as is the case with Lord Protector Israfil) or cunning and disloyal (as is the case with Kol), it’s easy to understand why she would feel so conflicted.

For there is thus no question that both the Kadoshim and the Ben-Elim are deeply flawed, the former because of their lust to destroy everything in their path, the latter because of their puritanical belief that theirs is the only way to gain an understanding of the workings of Elyon, the one who created all. Nothing illustrates this more than the way in which the two groups treat their half-human progeny. While the Ben-Elim almost unanimously regard such hybrids as an abomination, the Kadoshim regard them with something akin to love, even if they also see them as yet another piece in their eventual game to destroy their enemies. In the end, it’s hard to say which side has the right of it, and that is part of the novel’s sinister genius.

Having now finished two books in Of Blood and Bone, I’m struck again by the gritty darkness that is a hallmark of this world. Gwynne doesn’t shy away from the brutality and intensity of battle. There are numerous descriptions of violence (so this may not be suitable for you if that isn’t your thing), but they don’t feel gratuitous. Instead, they feel like the hallmarks of a grim world that always teeters on the brink of destruction. One has to be hard to live in these lands. As a result, A Time of Blood, like its predecessors, feels very akin to the epics of the ancient north.

A Time of Blood does an excellent job of avoiding the pitfalls of second book syndrome. The plot-lines established in the first novel have moved forward in ways that make sense, and the state has been set for the climactic battle that will, it can be hoped, decide the fate of the Banished Lands. Given how many of the characters that I loved from The Faithful and the Fallen met their deaths in the last book, I’m not terribly hopeful that many of the characters from this one will survive this climactic battle but, as the old saying goes, hope springs eternal.

There’s only one drawback to loving a book so much that you finish it in two days: you have to wait several months for the concluding volume to be released!

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!

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?