I received this book from Orbit through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
I’ve spoken often of what I call “book vibes”, the strong pull that an unknown-to-me story exerts on my imagination from the first time I see its cover: I have no idea what it is that calls out to me so strongly – after all a cover is nothing but an image – but still, nine times out of ten, that siren song leads me toward a story I end up loving. This was the case with A Time of Dread, and it’s an even more extraordinary event because this novel’s core theme is about the conflict between angelic and demonic figures, a subject I’ve always been somewhat wary about, and what’s more this story comes as a sequel to a previous series, so I feared finding myself lost in a strange land. Well, I should not have worried on either count, because this book literally swept me off my feet and left me wanting for more – and deeply curious about the previous series, that I mean to read as soon as possible.
First things first, if you are a John Gwynne newbie like me, you should not worry about getting your bearings in this story: the beginning of the book and its leisurely pace seem tailor-made for readers who have no prior knowledge of previous events, so that characters’ recollections and dialogues can ease you into the history of this world, and what came before. What’s even more important, from my point of view, is that the “good vs. evil” battle is not so clean cut as its main players might make you believe: if the Kadoshim, the devil-like creatures threatening to overcome the land through evil, are a clear enemy, the Ben-Elim, the “angels”, are not quite perfect, leaving plenty of room for some grey areas in their characterization and objectives.
The Land of the Faithful is enjoying a relative peace after the brutal conflicts of several decades before, when the Ben-Elim and their human and giant allies defeated the Kadoshim and their leader Asroth, now frozen in a metal-like substance in Drassil, the Ben-Elim’s main fortress. Still, an enemy who was not completely vanquished is fated to return, and the titular dread is indeed a pervasive feeling as many apparently unrelated occurrences stir trouble and lead the guardians of the land toward preparations for a new war. Through the four main point-of-view characters, the situation unfolds under the readers’ eyes, steering them toward the momentous climax that brought as many revelations as clues for the story’s future developments. All four points of view were equally engaging, and the skillful management of their individual threads made for an accelerating pace that often made it difficult to close the book, but even though they were all on an equal footing, I could not avoid picking favorites…
Riv is a young warrior-in-training with the White Wings, the Ben-Elim’s elite fighting force. Strong and determined to emulate her mother and older sister in military prowess, she tries too hard and ends up failing the final test that would have marked her official enlistment in the army. Prone to bouts of blinding anger, she struggles between the need to belong to the forces of good and the powerful drive to explore some strange occurrences, a curiosity that, together with her anger-management issues, might cost her the goal she’s been pursuing all her life. Much as I was interested in Riv’s journey, given that her inquisitive nature allowed me to discover more of this world, I struggled to warm up to her because of some personality traits that felt too much YA-oriented for my comfort, especially in her attraction to Bleda and the pointed rivalry with Jin, Bleda’s future wife. Nevertheless, the last chapter of the novel opens a new road for her, one I can’t wait to explore and see where it leads and that might help me overcome my (albeit slight) misgivings.
Bleda is another character with some YA overtones, but I found it less difficult to like him than I did with Riv: he’s the only surviving son of a war chieftain, taken to Drassil by the Ben-Elim as a hostage to insure the continuing truce between his people and their neighbors. He is an interesting character, because he starts as a virtual prisoner of the Ben-Elim, at first resenting them for taking him away from a life of freedom in the wilderness, then learning to see their merits and finally risking his life in their defense during a surprise attack by the Kadoshim and their followers, and this causes him to doubt his loyalty to his people and to question himself and his motives. Not unlike Riv, Bleda is driven by the need to fit in, to find his place in the world, and his being in a state of flux might bring unexpected developments I am eager to learn.
As for Sig, the giantess allied to the Ben-Elim, who rides to battle atop a huge bear, I liked her immediately, always looking forward to her p.o.v. chapters: long-lived like all her people, she has accumulated a store of wisdom that she blends with subdued humor, two traits that make her character an instantly likable one, especially in the dealings with some of her more enthusiastic human comrades in arms. Sig is like a window on the past, and through her I was able to glimpse what came before and to understand how the present alliance for good is not exactly one based on blind faith, but rather on necessity borne of the need to battle a greater evil.
The other character I most cared about is Drem, little more than a boy who grew up in the wilderness with his father, trapping animals for their skins. Drem is an interesting mix of guileless innocence and strength, of deep sense of integrity and fierceness that it’s impossible not to like him, to suffer for his losses, share in his desire for justice or more simply to feel a deep kinship with him.
While these main characters, and the secondary ones that move alongside them, are the backbone of the story, what truly drew me in was the constant, relentless buildup leading toward the breathless final part of the novel: it was like listening to a crescendo of suspenseful string music, the kind we know heralds great portents, or great tragedies. A Time of Dread offers both, thanks to a story that is epic in scope and at the same time quite focused on individuals and their journey. If you have not yet read anything by John Gwynne, be prepared to be (happily) ambushed by this story and to be taken captive – not that I feel any need to escape, because I’m firmly on-board for the duration and can’t wait to know what will happen next.