Wrath by John Gwynne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Being book 4 of a 4-book series, this review of Wrath is inevitably also a review of the entire series.
The Faithful and the Fallen does little, if anything, new. Instead, it is almost a love letter to the heroic fantasy genre. In hitting the tropes and doing everything very well, it succeeds in meeting reader expectations and deserves to stand as one of the most popular series in recent years.
There are so many, and Gwynne does a fantastic job of paying attention to each one, generously giving them the space and time in the story to grow. For one writer to keep in their head so many characters and storylines is an impressive feat. So, we have heroes operating in different areas of The Banished Lands, as well as the villain point of views. And yes, most of them fall into the good and evil categories fairly early on. I enjoyed the fact that the female characters had just as much agency and personality as the male.
The series, then, needs to be recognised as an ensemble performance. This isn’t a single character study and so we don’t get the character depth that we might from a single or three pov series. And honestly, no single character really stood out for me. Corban, the YA male hero was a little vanilla for my tastes – very much the farm boy model so common to the traditional, big series in the genre. But for someone coming to this genre fresh, no doubt a great lead character, for the others to work off. And I always got the sense with this series that Gwynne was at least in part thinking of a teenage audience when he was writing this. The animal characters arguably steal the show. With all the attention on grimdark in recent years a bit of simple heroism, loyalty and Truth and Courage is refreshing.
The Banished Lands have I would suggest a sort of Dark Age setting that I enjoyed. Technology is limited, there are no great cities. There are various human kingdoms and the remnants of the previous civilisation to enjoy power – the Giants. Other than that, no other creatures (in the world itself). The political, social and military aspects all made sense. All in all, it leant historical authenticity to the setting which allowed me to settle into the story.
Magic plays a role in the storyline, but it’s kept low key and mysterious. Gwynne makes some attempt to introduce a basic magic system, but he doesn’t go on about it. Few pov characters have magic themselves.
Most characters, therefore, contribute with their military skill – we have swordsmen, axemen, archers, knife-wielding cage fighters etc. This is where Gwynne’s interest lies and it’s in this area I would argue that he excels. Combat feels real and gritty. One-on-one duels, ambushes, through to large-scale warfare with set piece shield wall battles are all handled with real skill and these (for me) are the exciting moments.
As indicated, there is a good-evil storyline at the heart of this, with some decent twists along the way. The return of good and evil gods and what could perhaps be called a spirit realm or at least another dimension enter the story from time to time and of course come into the finale – a familiar epic fantasy device. This part of the story was perhaps the least successful for me and fortunately wasn’t over-used. It is when Gwynne is dealing with quite brutal, real situations – like Maquin and his revenge storyline – that his writing comes alive.
The search for the seven weapons gives the plot some momentum and requires the characters to travel around the world. There are also political upheavals as kings and queens are overthrown and replaced. With so much going on, Gwynne manages to keep the whole thing action-oriented and fast-paced. Of course, the enemies need to come together for regular showdowns and the grand finale. But there were moments, including in the final book, when I felt the plot became a bit forced or unrealistic and lacked the grand scale of Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire.
All in all, this is a great series, epic in every respect. There are no real weaknesses, and I would say every definable aspect would score at least 8/10. It’s in the combat scenes that I would argue it sticks its head above its peers.
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