Wrath by John Gwynne

Wrath (The Faithful and the Fallen, #4)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.

Characters

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.

Worldbuilding

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.

Plot

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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Valour by John Gwynne

Valour (The Faithful and the Fallen, #2)Valour by John Gwynne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s no doubt that John Gwynne is delivering for fans of epic fantasy with this series, hitting many of the tropes we have come to expect from the genre.

His main achievement, I think, is in creating a work of breadth and depth, with a substantial number of character povs, while keeping a frenetic pace. The book is well plotted and full of action scenes, with individual fights and large scale military engagements occurring regularly. The author knows his stuff when it comes to medieval warfare. Altogether, this is no mean feat.

Of course, all of which means other elements are, almost inevitably, less sharp. The characters are all solid and likeable but there are few that climb above their fantasy standards: the prophesied young hero, his sword mentor, the wise woman, the gang of loyal family and friends. I’m not criticising – all the characters serve their purpose, they carry the storyline and have allowed Gwynne to finish what is an epic story. We have an overarching good v evil storyline, with an interesting range of characters on the ‘bad’ side. The worldbuilding is developed but the author hasn’t bitten off more than he can chew. We have human kingdoms and giant kingdoms, all quite similar, creating a believable Dark Age style world without the need for more complexity. Magic is a half way house between being mysterious and having a system: perhaps not totally pleasing either ‘camp’ but probably not putting off many either.

So I guess I’m saying that so far, this series doesn’t try to do many new things. I’m not sure I’d give any one element 10/10. But nor would I give anything less than 7 or 8. Readable, exciting, fast-paced, huge in scale, diverse characters, a believable fantasy world – for this reader and I would have thought most fans of the genre – Valour delivers.

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Malice by John Gwynne

Malice, the first book in the completed fantasy series The Faithful and the Fallen, is a title that has been on my radar for a while, and I have finally got round to giving it a read. I found it a really interesting experience. The covers for the series are quite similar to mine, with a weapon taking centre stage on each book. Once I got reading, I found that the similarities didn’t end there.

 

Characters

One of the obvious similarities is that there are a lot of characters and a lot of viewpoints. Gwynne doesn’t shy away from this, crediting the reader with the intelligence to follow multiple storylines. While these storylines do overlap, the characters are located in different kingdoms, with their own challenges and problems. Gwynne gives a chapter to each character, following the approach of GRR Martin, and personally I found it all perfectly easy to follow, but I am well used to and generally enjoy this approach.

Corban is a fairly typical fantasy character: a boy growing into a man, living in the capital of the King of Ardan, being taught how to fight by a mentor or two, with a crew of family and friends around him. It is pretty clear early on that he is destined to become a heroic figure. His sister, Cywen, gets her own chapters, but she is largely a support character in this book. Veradis, located in a separate kingdom, Tenebral – the home of the ‘high king’, is a newly trained warrior who is assigned to serve the Prince of Tenebral, Nathair. A third young fighter, Krelis, is located in a third kingdom, Isiltir, at the court of his uncle. Orphaned and isolated, he has an uncertain future.

There are a host of other characters. Like the main characters, a huge proportion of them are men: kings, soldiers, bandits, champions, hunters and the like, many of whom are more than handy with a blade. A lot of attention is given to military aspects. This probably means the series isn’t for everyone. I enjoyed it, though even I struggled at times to differentiate between all the characters, perhaps because some of them were a bit samey.

 

Worldbuilding

Malice is set in the Banished Lands, occupied generations ago by humans who arrived by sea. The humans have formed several kingdoms, who can form alliances and rivalries with one another. One of the kingdoms, Tenebral, has a high king, whose authority over the others is vague. Between kingdoms are lawless forests inhabited by bandits. When the humans first arrived, they had to defeat several giant clans for control over the Banished Lands. The remnants of these clans still exist, seemingly pushed into forests and mountains by the more populous humans.

As a setting its more familiar than unique. But the impressive part of the worldbuilding is the many kingdoms that feature in this book. Each has its own internal and external politics. A lot of thought has gone into this, and it helps the reader to feel like the events are taking place in a real world.

There is magic in the Banished Lands, wielded by humans, giants and other creatures. But it is mysterious and in Malice the reader is kept at arms length from it: none of the main characters are wizards. I tend to prefer this approach, since it avoids the dangers of laboriously outlining a whole new magic system for a character to learn (yawn).

 

Plot

This is a traditional epic fantasy series in many ways. Driving the plot is a good vs evil storyline. Although we are not given too much information, we learn that in the past there have been two Gods (one good, one evil). A prophecy reveals that a Godswar is coming and two figures will emerge as champions of each God: a hero and an anti-hero. Malice reveals who these two individuals will be. It does feel a little corny at times, and the revelation of the hero and anti-hero is so heavily signposted the reader is not really given the fun of guessing. Of course, there may be a twist in the later books here, but it didn’t feel like there was going to be when I read this one.

Again, it is not dwelt on too heavily, but part of this Godswar may well be the location of nine (? or similar) magic items/weapons cast by the Gods. The search for these items may well form the plot for much of the three remaining books of the series. Again, I couldn’t help here but see the connection to my own series, where the heroes have to find 7 weapons to combat the threat to Dalriya. Yes, the search for magic objects can potentially feel old hat. But it injects purpose, conflict and direction into a plot, which in epic fantasy, with sprawling worlds and huge casts, might otherwise get lost.

The plot of Malice did a great job of introducing the rest of the series, with enough going on to start pulling characters in different directions and as a reader I was interested to see where it would go next.

 

 

Overall, I would definitely recommend this book to fantasy fans, who have the added bonus of knowing that this is a completed series they can read to a conclusion. I will certainly be continuing with it. It’s traditional fantasy done well.