Okay, so I rail against long fantasy epics all the time, knowing full-well that I’ll have to walk that back one day. Today is that day. I can already see my enemies at the gates, laughing and shouting “I told you so!”
First, a definition:
Long Fantasy Epic: Noun – Any story that takes 4 or more books that are each over 600 pages; any series that ends with a cliffhanger but then you have to wait more than 2 years between books and by that time you’ve forgotten everything. See also, “really annoying.”
But, recently, I picked up a fantasy novel from John Gwynne titled Malice, which is the first in a series called The Faithful and the Fallen. And by series I mean Long Fantasy Epic. I thought it was just going to be a trilogy, but, like network television, the real money doesn’t start until season 4. Somehow, though, I found myself drawn into it.
The Banished Lands used to belong to the giants. But men came and drove them out. Now the land is divided into many kingdoms. In Ardan, in the fortress of Dun Carreg, young Corban works in his father’s smithy while awaiting the Long Night, when he will become a man and a warrior for the king. But events are shaping in the world that will forever change his future. Kings plot against kings, the giant-stones weep blood, the ancient treasures of the giants have been found, and in the east, a secret army of holy warriors await the coming of the god-war.
While the world around him descends into war, Corban finds himself swept up in events he cannot control, with unexpected choices and far-reaching consequences.
I’ve kept the synopsis somewhat vague because there is a lot going on in this novel. It’s clearly the first of the series, with a new world to display and relationships to develop. There are many characters to sort through and quite a few momentous events to log. Don’t be fooled, though; Malice does not feel like an expository novel. All the events that are set in motion for the forthcoming entries in the series are arrived at through enough adventure for 2 novels. It’s not boring; the author keeps a good pace and good organization, never straying from important characters for too long and never overly-complicating matters.
The characters themselves, and there are many, are well-drawn. Even a minor character such as Corban’s father feels fleshed out. Characters are three-dimensional. No one is purely good or unequivocally evil (though there are obvious good guys and bad guys). I especially liked a character named Evnis, who is a catalyst for major events later in the novel. He’s not a nice guy, but he’s complex and interesting. You’re never quite sure what he’s going to do next or what side he’s going to fall on, which give his chapters intrigue and a genuine edge of suspense.
That said, don’t expect every character you like to live. While there is magic and monsters, the author takes the side of gritty realism when it comes to medieval-themed warfare. People die. And when you have a large cast of characters, you can bet some of them are going to fall. I’ve read some comments that the author is just aping a certain Game of Thrones author. The fact is, it’s not a storytelling trope pioneered by George R. R. Martin. Just read The Plantagenets, or any medieval history. Real life trumps fantasy world violence most of the time.
Of course, the author does use his fair share of fantasy staples, such as the unknown young person destined to be a hero and quests for mythological artifacts, but that’s almost unavoidable. There aren’t any elves or dwarves, so he hasn’t drawn too much from the well. No, where I would lodge a complaint is in the overall world-building.
The author presents a fairly basic backstory for his world. This is fine because he doesn’t need thousands of years of history for the story he’s presenting (we can’t all be like Tolkien and spend decades writing that backstory) and he works well with what he has. But one of the pleasures of reading fantasy novels is in the discovery of the secrets that the author hides in their world. The unknown is half the fun. While I expect surprises in future installments, the author handles his reveals in an anti-climactic way here.
In one chapter, a character mentions a legend of a hidden city of warriors in a far eastern kingdom. In the next chapter, there they are, hanging out in the hidden city, any mystery completely chased away. Other times, characters discuss legendary ruins of the ancient giant race. Then they just go ahead and go there like it was no big deal and everyone knew all about it anyway.
I suppose these are whiny quibbles, but why develop fantastic things only to treat them in a mundane way?
For me though, the characters shine. They feel real and develop at a natural pace. I also loved the open feel about the story. Yes, there are times where it feels like the author is forcing an event into a pre-defined plotline, but most of the time, I didn’t know what was going to happen next. It kept me turning the pages.
And now I’m knee-deep in book 2.