A Time Of Dread – Putting The Epic Back In Epic Fantasy

34392663I 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
-Andrew

Advertisements

Wrath – The Wrap Up

27411345I feel like I am trapped in a hundred ongoing series these days, so it is both relieving and alarming to actually finish one. I recently got to wrap up The Faithful and The Fallen, by John Gwynne, with the fourth and final book in the series, Wrath. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, I have talked about it before and even had an interview with Gwynne about it. The story is a classic fantasy tale about a farm boy with a destiny, but the twist is there are multiple metaphorical farm boys. The series has been the freshest addition to the genre since The Wheel of Time finished a few years back, but does the final book of the quartet continue the tradition of excellence or fall short?

The short answer is it does both, but let me take some time to lay out what I mean. The strengths of The Faithful and The Fallen (TFATF) are John Gwynne’s punchy short form narration, great characters driving the story, and a constant shifting of the balance of power between good and evil so that each is constantly clawing their way to be slightly above the other in strength every few chapters. These elements combine to make TFATF a fast and exciting read, despite the books actually being quite large. The story itself is not the most original of all time, a chosen one of the forces of good must fight the chosen one of the forces of evil – it actually reminded me a lot of the plot of Star Wars. However, the strengths mentioned earlier on make TFATF shine like a bright light in the landscape of similar books.

Wrath continues to have excellent characters, and Gwynne’s great short form narration, but i found that with TFATF I enjoyed the journey more than the destination. Wrath does a fantastic job ending the story of TFAFT, nicely closing off a ridiculous number of plot lines with elegance that makes it clear Gwynne planned out his series meticulously. That being said, I liked the build up and twists of all the stories much more than I enjoyed their actual conclusions. Wrath has a lot of major battles in it, and looking at what my fellow reviewers are saying, a lot of people like that! On the other hand, I found the personal stories of the 100+ characters in TFATF the reason I came back to the series over and over again, and Wrath feels much less like all the characters getting personal endings, and much more like a grand fireworks display.

Despite my earlier comments, I can’t hold any of my complaints against Wrath because all the elements I don’t like revolve around the fact that the story is ending. The real reason I am upset is that TFATF is over. It is such a funny thing that all of us complain how long some series take to finish,  but when I finish a great one like The Faithful and The Fallen I am heart broken that there won’t be more coming. John Gwynne has been very successful with his first series and has been talking about a new one coming out in the future, and I cannot wait to see what he has planned for us next.

Rating:
Wrath – 7.5/10
The Faithful and The Fallen – 8.0/10

Ruin And Writing – An Interview With John Gwynne

511cb7dyv2bl-_sx324_bo1204203200_It is an unfortunate fact of life that there isn’t enough time in the day to do everything. Due to this, every time a reader makes a ‘best of’ list there are invariably going to be some gems that slipped through the cracks simply due to time constraints. This year, Ruin falls into that category. Ruin is the 3rd installment of The Faithful and The Fallen, a quartet by the author John Gwynne. For those unfamiliar, the series is an alternate take on the ‘hero’s journey’ trope. John uses his fast paced writing style and massive cast to create an original and thrilling epic that makes something new out of a tried-and-true story. The Faithful and the Fallen is considered by many fans, myself included, to be an underrated gem. Thus, it is with immense pleasure that I had the opportunity recently to speak with John about his writing style and his future plans. Enjoy!

 

  • One of the best things about The Faithful and The Fallen, to me, is your deconstruction of the “farm boy with a destiny” fantasy trope. I love how you have taken it apart and were able to breathe new life into the story. What was your inspiration to create the new take on this plotline?

 

I’m really pleased that you’re enjoying Corban’s journey. There is something in his story that is very nostalgic, a harkening back to classic fantasy. I grew up on epic fantasy. I clearly remember my teacher gathering up the class and reading from ‘The Book of Three,’ book one of The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander. I was 7 or 8 years old, and I loved it. After that it was a slippery slope of Hobbits and dragons, magic rings and giant spiders, minotaurs and Holy Grails and swords in stones…

I loved the hero’s journey. When I began writing ‘Malice’ I wanted to try and capture some of that nostalgia, but I also wanted to merge it with more modern sensibilities where there is a lot of grey in between the black and white. So I tried to write a character that could potentially become a hero, but through his own choices, his own internal struggles and code, his own sense of family and friendship and what courage and cowardice meant to him, rather than some pre-ordained ‘royal blood’ type of predestination. It’s a story where choices matter.

  1. The cast of The Faithful and The Fallen is gigantic. I am extremely grateful to you for your character keys at the start of the books, as it really helped me to remember who everyone is and where they left off. Why did you decide to go with such a large set of characters instead of focusing on a smaller cast?

 

I wanted to write something that felt epic, where the fate of the world was at stake, not just a case of border disputes and who gets to be be king or queen. So the Faithful and the Fallen has different levels, ranging from personal disputes as small as bullying right up through border rivalries to a conflict that threatens all human life. I tried to choose POV characters that would best be able to tell the different threads of the story, which just seemed to keep growing for a while, and as many of these POV characters were situated in different realms the world around them kept on growing and filling out. There did come a point where I thought ‘whoa, this is too big!’ so I trimmed it back, removed whole realms, kings and queens, merged some characters and trimmed sub-plots.

Now it doesn’t feel that big to me, but I think that is probably because it’s my baby, a world in my head!

 

  1. I really enjoyed your shorter chapters and punchy narration while reading the series. I have seen some criticism of the books, namely that some readers feel as though they do not get enough time with each character. I personally felt it made the story move more quickly and raised the excitement. Was this writing style intentional for the story, or something that sort of just happened?

 

That’s really a case of my own style evolving, and becomes more apparent as you move through the series. When I was writing I was aware that with a large cast the pacing can feel slow, so I made an effort in each chapter just to tell the story, tell the event, let the character do what they needed to do, then move on to the next character POV. I think this has managed to keep the story and pace moving, but it can sometimes feel like POV chapters come and go too quickly, and if you add to that a large cast then there is a risk of the reader forgetting threads. I suppose it’s down to the reader’s preference. Writing’s one big juggling act! Plot, pace, character, world-building, keeping them all moving forward. I do prefer to write in shorter chapters, and without even realising it I will start to feel a bit twitchy if a chapter is dragging on. I’m glad you like it.

 

  1. I am very excited for (I believe) the conclusion to The Faithful and The Fallen next year with Wrath, your 4th installment in the series. Do you currently have any plans to do more in The Faithful and The Fallen universe, or do you have plans for any new series in the future?

 

‘Wrath’ is the final installment in the series. I finished writing it in November 2015. It is with my editor now and is due for publication towards the end of 2016. Finishing it was a very bittersweet experience; wonderful to be writing scenes that I’ve imagined for so long, wonderful to see the end of story arcs that have been in my head for many years, and also wonderful to see a villain or two finally get their comeuppance! But it was also sad, saying goodbye to characters and story.

I am writing something else, though. It’s a trilogy, set in the same world, the Banished Lands, but around a hundred years or so after the events of Wrath. I don’t want to say too much as I wouldn’t want to give away events from ‘Wrath.’ I’ll just say that the central character is a winged berserker named Rae, and that there will be warrior-angels, nomadic, bow-wielding tribesmen, giants, monsters running amok, and demonic serial-killers. Oh, and of course, plenty of betrayal. Book 1 is due for publication in 2017. The working title of the series is ‘Of Blood and Bone.’

Thank you again, John, for taking the time to talk with me. I have marked my release calendar for 2017 and greatly look forward to reading Of Blood and Bone. In the meantime, Ruin is here to tide fans over as a very solid continuation of a series that was already quite good. For those of you who have been waiting to pick up your copy of Ruin, I suggest you stop waiting. In addition, if you haven’t read The Faithful and The Fallen and are looking for a new take on the hero’s journey, I highly recommend you pick up book one, Malice, and give it a read.

Rating: Ruin by John Gwynne – 8.5/10

The First Post – Part 2: Hidden Gems of Fantasy

In contrast to part 1, below are a few unknown and under-read books that are phenomenal. I will likely do longer reviews of each of these to give them more justice in the future, but for now here is a blurb:

Heroes Die (The Acts of Caine) – By Matthew Stover

When people ask me if there are any good Fantasy/Sci-Fi crossovers, I hand them these books. Welcome to Overworld, a fantasy world that Sci-Fi actors teleport into in order to broadcast fantasy adventures as live entertainment to a futuristic Earth across dimensions. Now I know that sounds awesome, and it is, but it is not even the best thing that makes these books so good.

Matthew Stover is one of a few authors I have read to get a really interesting and expansive character cast. These perspectives include a self absorbed violent anti-hero, an abusive father, a cripple, a loving mother/father, the young, the old, a tyrant, the list goes on. It is a really unique reading experience that honestly gave me a chance to put on the shoes of people I never really had a chance to before, while also being incredibly action packed with an amazing plot and really well done fights. If you are looking for an original story mostly following an anti-hero, this is for you.

Traitor’s Blade (Greatcoats) – By Sebastian De Castell

For those of you who haven’t read Alexandre Dumas, I implore you to give him a shot. His literary classics like the Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers are amazing stories and you are often introduced to very pared down versions of them when you are younger. There is a lot to enjoy in their more full stories.

Someone who seems to agree with me is Sebastian De Castell. Traitor’s Blade clearly draws inspiration from The Three Musketeers, but carries most of the weight of the story on its own. The relationship of the three main characters is what makes the books special. It feels like you are reading a description of friendship. The dialogue between them is laugh out loud funny and makes your heart swell constantly. If you want to read a tale about you and your best friends fighting the world, this is for you.

Retribution Falls (Tales of the Ketty Jay) – By Chris Wooding

Who here likes Firefly? Ok you can all put your hands down. We all love Firefly, and we all wish it got its full run. Well…. how about something just as good to fill that hole in your heart? With how popular Firefly is I am always surprised at how few people know about these books. The Tales of the Ketty Jay are a series of four books that tell the stories of a crew of individuals on a ship. There is a captain with a sorded past, and a female crew member with a dark supernatural secret… and at this point many of you are assuming it is a rip-off.

Except the Ketty Jay does a lot differently than the Serenity and it makes for a very different experience with that same Firefly flavor. The crew is more dysfunctional, with each of them having a well developed reason to be on the ship and away from society. The society itself is much more deeply explored, and more time is given to the historical conflicts. In addition, I feel like the books do a much better job hitting that “western” feel because they avoid outer space, and stick to trans-continental airships duking it out wild wild west style. If you loved Firefly, you will likely love this series.

Malice (The Faithful and the Fallen) – By John Gwynne

This book is clever. I think the premise is pure brilliance and the execution is almost as good. Everyone has read the “farmboy destined to be king” story, where an unlikely individual is unbelievably gifted and must go on a story of self discovery to come into his power. But what if there were 6 destined farmboys, they all thought they were the figure of destiny, and one of them was actually in fact  the anti christ?

The story is about an age old vague myth that tells of the coming of both a bright and black sun, one to save the world, and one to end it. In a rare turn of events, instead of the protagonists vehemently denying that they are gods gift to the lands, the opposite happens and multiple people think they are the good sun. Except, one of them is the dark and doesn’t realize it. After reading so many stories about reluctant heroes, the breath of fresh air that is this book really appealed to me. If you are looking for a twist on the classic epic fantasy I highly recommend it.