After the cliffhanger ending of the first book in this epic fantasy series I was keen to learn the fate of the characters I cared about, since most of them had not been left in a comfortable position by the end of Malice, so I was happy to see that Valour started exactly where its predecessor had left off, almost as if this were a new chapter in the story.
What I was not prepared to accept, however, was the leisurely way in which the author placed his pieces on the complicated chessboard of this series: much as the previous volume (and the other Gwynne book I read) the story starts with a deliberate pace that I have now come to recognize as the author’s modus operandi, and this kind of pace requires some patience from the readers, a quality I don’t possess in great amount, unfortunately, and that in this case was hindered by my eagerness to move forward with the story. This experience taught that with a John Gwynne novel one must be patient, and that such restraint will always be rewarded in the end.
War has come to the Banished Lands: high king Nathair, persuaded that he’s the Bright Star, the champion of light who must fight against the encroaching darkness, has launched his plan of conquest, blind to the deviousness of his allies and the harm he’s inflicting on the ever-dwindling decent rulers of the land. Young Corban, the true champion of good, is on the run with princess Edana and a few trusty companions, and suffering the double burden of the loss of his father and sister on one side and the awareness of being special on the other, a notion he’s not ready to accept. Cywen, Corban’s sister who has been left for dead in the assault on Dun Carreg, is taken prisoner by Nathair’s war-band, her attempts at escape thwarted time and again, as are her attempts to convince Veradis – Nathair’s first sword – of her brother’s innocence: Veradis is indeed as blind to outside influence as his king… And last but not least, warrior Maquin (one of my favorite secondary characters in Malice) finds himself prisoner of the Vin Thalun pirates and is forced to set aside his principles and humanity as he’s compelled to fight for his life in their slave pits.
These are only the highlights of a very complex story that slowly but surely gains momentum as it expands to encompass an ever-widening playing field and cast of characters: each of them is given room to grow and the chance of offering their point of view to the readers through alternating chapters that are often quite brief, as if to underline both the intricacy of the plot and the scope of the events. One of the points that these characters’ journey underscores repeatedly is that the line of demarcation between good and evil is thin and often blurred: the “bad guys” are more often than not mislaid by the true enemies who use their insecurities or their flaws as leverage to accomplish their dark goals, so that the readers can see these people are not inherently evil but more simply misguided; just as the “good guys” find themselves repeatedly forced to be vicious in order to survive, needing to forget the rules of honor and fairness that have been at the root of their nature until then.
As a counterpoint to this element, however, there is a wonderful stress on the feelings of friendship, of belonging to an extended family that does not rely only on ties of blood but rather on the those forged in adversity, which end up being stronger than any blood relationship might be. We see this often – with the most notable example being that of former brigand Camlin, who for the first time in his life perceives this sense of belonging once he discovers he’s prepared to give his life for people he once might have preyed upon. It’s one of the few rays of hope in what looks like a dire, sometimes hopeless background.
Be they good or evil, invested with a mission or duped into wrongdoing, these characters – all of them – are the real backbone of the story, here even more than in the previous novel because we can see how they have evolved and can perceive where they might be headed; what’s more, the addition of new characters adds more layers to the ones we already know, because it’s through these interactions that an individual’s true nature comes to the fore. And here lies the most difficult hurdle to be overcome by us readers, because one way or another we come to care for these characters, to see them as flesh and blood creatures, and when the author needs to remove them from the playing field it’s always a shock, and one that’s not always easy to metabolize. Epic fantasy should have prepared us to endure these losses: from the death of poor Boromir to the cruel slaying of Ned Stark, just to name two of the most famous ones, we should know that being one of the “good guys” is no guarantee of survival, and yet every time that happens we feel the same pain of… betrayal and are reminded of the bitter lesson of war, that no one is safe. The only comfort offered by John Gwynne’s portrayal of these deaths is that they always seem to fulfill some higher purpose, that we can see how that particular life was not wasted on a whim – it might not be much, but it’s enough.
And speaking of war, I noticed how Valour contains an impressive number of battle or duel sequences, from war skirmishes to gladiatorial arena combat: in every instance you can find a precision of detail, a sort of choreography to the action that turns these scenes into quite cinematic portrayals. For someone like me, who usually skips across this kind of description, this is indeed an amazing approach.
Much as Valour might have started somewhat slowly for my tastes, by the end it developed into a breathtaking narrative with higher and higher stakes, and totally unpredictable developments: if Malice laid the ground for the encroaching of evil, and Valour showed the kind of sacrifices required by the battle against it, I wonder what the next book’s title – Ruin – will mean in terms of story progress. What I know is that it will be another enthralling journey.