When earlier this year I read John Gwynne’s A Time of Dread, the first volume in his new saga titled Of Blood and Bone, I was immediately captivated by the author’s storytelling and the complex background of the novel, so that once I learned of the existence of a previous loosely connected series, I knew I would not wait long before reading it. Which brings me to Malice, the start of The Faithful and the Fallen epic.
On the surface, Malice looks like a classic good vs. evil tale, and in truth it employs several traditional elements of the genre, like the prophecy of an impending conflict between the champions of light and darkness, or the coming of age of a young man destined to greatness, but it does so with such narrative skill that it’s impossible not to be absorbed by the story and enjoy its rhythm and subtle buildup. I have come to envision the author as a bard of old, of the kind who once gathered people around a fire as he recounted tales that everyone was familiar with, but that gained new depth and meaning with clever storytelling, one where the journey matters more than the end. As a longtime admirer of JRR Tolkien and his Lord of the Rings, I found here the same kind of epic tale I love to lose myself in.
As far as the background is concerned, the novel takes place in the Banished Lands, a region where people retreated after the devastating war between the gods of good and evil, Elyon and Asroth, and where humans dwell in uneasy balance together with giants, wyrms and other outworldly creatures. High King Aquilus, who oversees the various realms in which the Banished Lands are divided, has been warned about the prophecy that heralds a new war between the opposing forces of light and darkness and the final battle between their champions, the Bright Star and the Black Sun: when he calls the other rulers to council, asking for an alliance against the coming darkness, his proposal is mostly met with uncertainty and disbelief, since the forces of evil have already begun to sow their seeds, so that what should have been a united front is fractured by mistrust and competing shows of strength.
I’m not going to delve further into the story because I think it must be enjoyed on its own: no matter how familiar the premise might sound, it’s the kind of tale that takes hold of your imagination and carries you, slowly but surely, toward its stirring climax: Malice works very much as an introduction, and as such it takes its time to gather clues and build them up, requiring some patience from the reader, but that patience is more than rewarded in the last segment of the novel, when events are brought to a peak that leads toward the next book in the series.
The real backbone of the book comes however from the characters: Mr. Gwynne gives us a good number of points of view, alternating them between chapters so that the story flows easily from one to the other: here lies my only contention with this novel, because we make the acquaintance of too many characters all at once, and that might prove a little daunting since we are not given enough time to get to know them properly before moving on to the next one. Aside from this little snag – that I overcame by taking notes to fix their traits in my mind – observing these individuals’ evolution in the course of the story was indeed a fascinating exercise.
The main point of view belongs to young Corban, a village smith’s son: he’s looking forward with some trepidation to the warrior training that all village boys undergo, especially since the local bully does his best to undermine Corban’s faith in himself and his abilities. It does not help that his fiery sister Cywen often comes to his rescue, somehow giving strength to the bully’s claim about Corban’s cowardice: it’s at this point that the mysterious stablemaster Gar offers his services as a combat instructor, mentoring the boy in what look like unusual techniques geared to face worse danger than what the usual village defender encounters. The relationship with the wolven Storm, a wild creature everyone else is wary of, lends a further patina of mystery to Corban’s destiny, and makes for some wonderful passages of bonding between boy and animal, that were among my favorite segments.
On the opposite side of the social spectrum there is Nathair, heir to King Aquilus: he’s eager to prove his worth and somewhat stifled by his father’s caution and his mother’s fear for his safety. The prince’s determination to show his mettle takes him toward a path where darkness rules more often than light does, and in so doing carries along with him another young noble, Veradis, enrolled in Nathair’s personal guard and looking for the recognition that his father always denied him. The theme of a remote father whose absence or lack of interest – which in some cases becomes outright hostility – drives the son away in search of respect encompasses another character, that of Kastell, whose path is however different because he puts himself to the service of the land, joining a specialized cadre of warriors who battle the dangerous creatures roaming the Banished Lands: Kastell’s journey is one of my favorite narrative threads, mostly because I enjoyed his relationship with older Maquin, who acts as a mentor and protector to the younger man. Last but not least is Evnis, the counsellor of King Brenin (one of the lesser rulers under Aquilus), who is painted from the very start as the true villain of the story since he sells his soul to evil Asroth in search of vengeance – and yet he’s not a totally negative character because there are somewhat valid reasons for his actions, although the choices he makes lead him on a dark path.
The character list is by no means limited to the ones I quoted of course: there is a great number of minor figures who enrich the variegated tapestry of this story and add interesting points of view that deepen our understanding of this world – I’d like to quote healer Brina here, because her caustic demeanor and sarcastic wisdom were among the highlights of Malice, to the point that I hope she will be present in the next volumes as well. All these figures contribute the immersive experience of the novel, one where the themes of courage and deception, of selflessness and wickedness, of friendship and hate all contribute to create a lively, believable background that is brought to life piece by piece as the complex mosaic of the story comes together. When taking into account the fact that this first volume of The Faithful and the Fallen is the author’s debut novel, Malice looks an even more extraordinary feat, one I know blossomed into the successful A Time of Dread, and one that makes me quite eager to continue exploring this saga.