I have a personal problem. My issue, is that I honestly am kinda tired of epic fantasy. There are of course outliers, such as series that change up the formula to the point where they are unrecognizable, but in general I have gotten bored following farm boys in a medieval Europe settings where they fight universal evils. I just feel like I have read this story 20 times in my life at this point and am hesitant to start new epic fantasy novels. As such, I have found myself going through the same emotional journey each time I pick up a John Gwynne novel. First, “why did I decide to do a high fantasy novel?” And then second, “oh right, because Gwynne is an incredible writer and I could read 10 of these”.
Gwynne broke into the fantasy scene not so long ago with his reimagined epic fantasy, The Faithful and the Fallen. It was a four book series that followed the classic farmboy with a destiny, but with a twist – there were several farm boys. The series did an incredible job blending the best of the old genre staples with a number of new ideas that made it feel fresh and exciting (review can be found here). Add to this the fact that Gwynne’s writing is fast, character driven, and exciting and you get the perfect formula for a memorable series. All in all, I enjoyed the quartet – though I thought the ending was the weakest part of the series. However, many of the things I didn’t like about the ending (its open nature and how it left a lot of loose ends) set the stage for Gwynne’s sequel series (Of Blood and Bone) that started this year with A Time of Dread. At first I was not thrilled that Gwynne was revisiting his world, but that didn’t stop me from requesting a review copy from the lovely people at Orbit because Gwynne is nothing if not consistently good. Sure enough, despite my initial misgivings A Time of Dread is a powerhouse of a book and I have fully bought in to Gwynne’s second journey through his world.
Many reviewers I have seen have mentioned that a reader can pick up A Time of Dread without reading the previous series and be able to follow along fine. While I think this is true, I also think this is a bad idea and highly encourage you to read The Faithful and the Fallen first. A Time of Dread takes place more than a hundred years later and the events from the first series have become the history of the second. It is a cool transition that made me feel immersed and connected with Gwynne’s new cast almost immediately and helped set the stage for the plot of Dread. Speaking of plot, Dread tells the story of a small and almost completely new cast of characters 100+ years after the ending of The Faithful and the Fallen. The big evil was vanquished, the land was saved, and everyone lived happily ever after… but not really. Similar to Game of Thrones, A Time of Dread tells the story of a not so happily ever after and the problems that face a group of people who put aside everything to stop a common enemy. The top baddy might have died, but his demon lieutenants (called Kadoshim, basically bat-angels) live on and carry on his work. The angelic beings who fought on the side of good (Ben-Elim) have set up shop in the human realms to pursue these demons, but rule everyone with an iron fist and destroy anyone not devoted to the cause.
The themes of the book surround change and adaptability. Both the Kadoshem and the Ben-Elim have been begun to adapt in the wake of their war – and the changes have deep ramifications for the humans who are just trying to coexist beside them. The story follows four characters (a significant step down in the number of POV’s from Gwynne’s previous novels), each with a different point of view of the Ben-Elim (everyone is pretty much on the same page with “screw the murder bat-demons”). One is a templar of the human division of the Ben-Elim army, devoted to their cause. A second is a hostage taken and trained under the Ben-Elim to ensure the good behavior of his people. A third is a warrior captain of a rival order to the Ben-Elim with a history of grievances against the angels. And the fourth and final is a man forced to the edge of the world to escape the persecution of the Ben-Elim for not living his life the way they desire. It creates an interesting tapestry of opinions that complement and conflict with one another to make the reader unsure who to believe or trust. This moral swamp is a nice change of scenery from the usual good vs. evil epic fantasy, and had me hooked early and kept me interested until the end.
Another vestige of the previous series that has been kicked to the curb is prophecy. Man am I tired of prophecy in fantasy novels. The first series revolved around prophecies and their interpretations, but A Time of Dread feels so much more open and free without the shackles of visions of the future. On the other hand, one great thing that did carry over from the previous books is Gwynne’s likable characters and intense action. The cast is wonderful, and I think I already like them as much as the characters from the first four books despite having only been with them a fourth as long. The action also remains top knotch and is takes a larger share of screen time than previous books. I also appreciated the mix up in different types of action/combat in A Time of Dread. Instead of battle after battle, you get things like a group of thugs walking through (and triggering) dangerous traps set by a protagonist. I am glad Gwynne decided to branch out and it makes the book feel fresh.
I don’t really have any complaints for A Time of Dread. Nothing was wrong with it and it nailed all of the positives I mentioned above. If I had to pick something, I would say I am a little disappointed that Gwynne has avoided doing any real world building for awhile. The world of The Faithful and The Fallen isn’t boring, but Gwynne has some real world building skill and I am a little sad I am not getting to see a new world from him.
At the end of the day A Time of Dread does nothing wrong and plenty of things right. This book has rekindled the ashes of my passion for epic fantasy and I am excited to see where the story goes next. Gwynne’s modern epic fantasies are the best thing to come out in the subgenre in years, and Of Blood and Bone looks like it’s going to raise that bar even higher.
Rating: A Time of Dread – 9.0/10