Malice by John Gwynne – Review [Lord of the Night]
Lord of the Night reviews the debut novel Malice by new author John Gwynne, the first in the Faithful and the Fallen series.
“A hell of a debut novel that will please all kinds of fantasy fans, and a setting that just begs to be explored in further detail. John Gwynne has definitely become a name to watch with only one novel.” – Lord of the Night @ The Founding Fields
Malice is a novel I picked up on a whim after reading the blurb on the internet, and I am very glad that I did because this has definitely been one of the best fantasy novels i’ve read all year. Malice hits all the notes of a good fantasy; a fascinating magic system that is awe-inspiring but also balanced properly, plenty of epic sword fights between skilled opponents, a protagonist with a destiny and an arch-rival for him, a world with a rich mythology that really makes you feel immersed in the setting, and a plot that promises a great adventure ahead for both characters and readers. This series has definitely become one that I am looking forward to reading more of, and with Malice having just recently won the David Gemmell Morningstar Award, it appears that it is getting the recognition that it deserves.
The Banished Lands have been calm for many years, ever since the Great Scouring when Elyon and his Ben-Elim ravaged the world in retaliation for the corruption of Asroth, the only real threat has been the remnants of the ancient Giant clans that still blight the lands. But that is about to change, with the coming of the God-War. Two champions, the Bright Star and the Black Sun, each representative of one of the two gods that wage their own war in the Otherworld, are destined to lead the fight in this confrontation between good and evil. But evil is on the rise as corruption spreads across the land, plots and pacts are made and the virtues of truth and courage look to be disappearing, it may be that the world will be engulfed in war long before the Bright Star can find his destiny and rise to be the champion that will save the world. Who is the Bright Star and who is the Black Sun, many candidates present themselves, but there can be only two true champions, but who is to say that either will realise who he truly is?
The plot in Malice is only the start of this series and it is split across multiple POVs, but is an origin story for both the Black Sun and Bright Star as we see both of these characters come of age and begin to find their place in the world, while seeing how other characters gravitate towards them or oppose them, and the first stirrings of the war that is to come. Gwynne builds his story up slowly, for a while the sole purpose of the book is to tell the early story of the protagonists and the wider story is not introduced until later in the book. I found this to be a good choice as it made the introduction of the main plot to be a more momentous event than if it had just been shoehorned in over a single chapter, and because it allowed Gwynne to tell the story of how such a momentous event affects the world around it before it even begins. I very much enjoyed the themes of this story which are overcoming fear, coming of age and the trials that it contains, good vs evil and how no man believes himself to be evil, and about the protagonist changing from a simple and scared child into a brave warrior. Another thing I liked were the stories of the secondary characters, two in particular the first of whom falls into the category of a good man who serves evil unwittingly being quite a compelling narrative as the plot shows how easy it is for a good to serve evil and not realise it, and the second being the protagonist’s sister who I believe will play a much larger part in the second novel and her theme of a strong woman in a fantasy world will hopefully be explored more then.
The characters are a well-written group, and quite diverse in their positions and ideals. Corban ben Thannon, the protagonist, is the focus of the novel and we see him grow up over the course of the book, and I found him to be a very understandable character, a boy who is growing up and must face all the hurdles that lead to adulthood in a world where the sword rules over all, but also how he tries to maintain the virtues of truth and courage when faced with corruption and human greed, but I think he has quite a way to go yet before he becomes the hero of this series. The second most recurring character, Veradis, was just as compelling as through him we see another of the series most important characters and we see how this character grows and changes, but in a different direction than Corban. Gwynne’s characters are quite compelling, his POV characters obviously more so than the non-POVs but Gwynne does put forward several interesting background plots that we read about as the POV characters go about their business, and I think the second book will feature a few new POVs to add to the current roster. One other thing that I liked was something that the protagonist gains in the story, fans of a certain fantasy series will obviously see the parallel between this character and one character from that series, but unlike in that series this thing that the protagonist gains is actually relevant to the plot and plays a role beyond mere appearances, which of course makes the protagonist more interesting solely because of what he gets, not that he isn’t interesting on his own but he does need something to set him apart from the majority of fantasy heroes, and what he gets is clearly a step in that direction.
The action is well written and parts of the novel focus on the theme of tactics being introduced to a world that largely had no use for them. Gwynne shows how a force with superior tactics trumps superior numbers, but doesn’t portray these thinking warriors as invincible but rather shows that a thinking warrior will usually defeat a warrior who doesn’t think. The battles are nicely done, plenty of epic swordfights, cavalry charges and the giants battling against men are some of the best scenes as the giants feel overwhelmingly strong and you quickly grasp why it is that killing one of them is considered such an achievement in this world. The use of magic was also well done, not overtly used in the book but rather only with certain characters in certain scenes, but importantly the magic felt powerful but not so powerful that it was overdone, and the users did seem strong but also vulnerable and not infallible, which is always important with magic in fantasy novels. My only issue with the novel in this regard is a personal thing and nothing to do with the writing, the novel is set in an era when the characters use leather armour and chainmail, and there is no badass plate armour and full helmets which is something that I simply love reading about. But that is just me. But on topic the action felt realistic and immersive, I also quite like that Gwynne didn’t make the protagonist good at all forms of combat but only parts of it, while being terrible at other parts, something that makes for a well-rounded character.
The pacing of the book is slow at first, the book takes some time to get into the main plot and the parts that deal with Corban growing up and his early trials, and those of the other characters, can feel slower to the reader but that doesn’t makt them bad, but when the real story kicks in things start to pick up as the action scenes occur m0re often and more and more important characters begin to enter the book, and by the final hundred to two-hundred pages things really pick up and the book feels fast-paced as events begin to come to a head and the main plot finally takes over as the focus of the novel. Because of how this novel is structured some may dislike it, the idea of reading an origin story doesn’t appeal to everyone and I am aware of the reasons, truthfully if someone had described how this book read I would have been wary of it, but I am glad that I tried it because Malice is a novel that still pulls you in even though the main plot isn’t the focus right away.
Now for my favourite quote, I think it has to be this one,
“Storm. I shall call her Storm.”
The ending is a good one, events of the novel making for a tense and action-packed final few chapters that put each of the POV characters, and many others, in very interesting positions that we’ll have to wait until the second novel, which I believe is titled Valour, to see where the characters will go and what awaits them as the God-War begins. The ending itself is not really a twist as certain events were inevitably going to happen, but it’s more like the progression of events that leaves off at a certain point. It’s a cliffhanger but not an abrupt one, rather a cliffhanger that leaves on a point where the story is about to shift dramatically, one of those points where a cliffhanger is appropriate. It does it’s job though and makes you want to know what is going to happen next, and has you looking for when the next book will be released so that you can start counting down the days until you can return to the setting. Each character gets a cliffhanger, putting them in uncertain places for the next book and with some we can only blindly guess at what is going to happen to them in Valour.
For a very enjoyable story that has the promise of so much more, well-written characters that I look forward to reading about again, and plenty of epic action scenes that have me anticipating when the real war breaks out in the series and we get more magic, I give Malice a score of 8.3/10. This is a very good book and one that fantasy fans should definitely check out, it’s a true fantasy novel and one that reads well and rewards you with a great story if you stick with it through the early world/character building. It’s slow start and the fact that things didn’t really start happening until halfway through the book do detract from it a bit, but I don’t think the rest of the series will have that problem, and I will definitely be checking out the rest of the Faithful and the Fallen series, and I would encourage any fan of the fantasy genre to give Malice and John Gwynne a try, I don’t think you’ll be sorry you did.
That’s it for this review. Thanks for reading, until next time,
AVE DOMINUS NOX!