Malice by John Gwynne
Review by Jamie Edmundson
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 around 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.
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.
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 arm’s 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).
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.