A Time of Dread has a much tighter narrative than the previous series, with Gwynne opting for a smaller cast of characters. Instead of fifteen points of view, we have four. The giantess, Sig, TFatF readers will remember. She now serves as the Weapons-master for the Order of the Bright Star and has dedicated her life to hunting the last of the Kadoshim. I loved her character in the previous series and was delighted that Gwynne decided to put her front and centre here. Sig is deeply loyal and serves as a strong connection to the past, often reminiscent of events and characters that most readers will fondly remember. She is also accompanied by a crew that I have no doubt every reader will absolutely love. While her story is one of tragedy and loss, it is filled with plenty of humour and banter that will have readers laughing aloud.
The two youngest protagonists are Riv and Bleda, who both reside in Drassil. Riv is a trainee White Wing, the human heavy infantry that accompany the Ben Elim into battle. Her hot-headedness is the source of plenty of conflict as she comes to terms with who she truly is. The stubborn rebellious youth is a trope done to death in fantasy but Gwynne writes it with awareness and authenticity making Riv a compelling character that many readers, especially younger ones, can relate to. Bleda is the heir to the Sirak Horse clan that roam the grasslands of Arcona, a region briefly mentioned but not explored in TFatF. Events at the beginning of the novel forces Bleda to become a ward of the Ben Elim, a position that he resents. Like Riv, he experiences a conflict of identity, torn between the Sirak ways and the mandate of the Ben Elim. It is through the stories of these two characters that we see the true nature of the Ben Elim. They may be Elyon’s chosen but they are far from being the infallible warrior angels they want everyone to perceive them as.
By far, my favourite character is the young trapper, Drem, who lives out on the frontier lands of the Desolation with his pa, Olin. I immediately warmed to Drem. He is kind and brutally honest, two traits which get him into a lot of trouble with strangers. He reminds me a lot of Corban, and I would go insofar as to say that I like him even more than the main protagonist of TFatF. Indeed, one reason is that Drem shows signs that he is on the autism spectrum. As a teacher I partly work in an ASD class and Gwynne’s decision to write Drem as he is, truly resonated with me. Autism does not have as much representation in fantasy and literature as it should so I have the utmost respect and admiration for Gwynne putting such characters front and centre. Gwynne also writes Drem and Olin’s father-son relationship with such passion that it was my favourite aspect of the entire novel.
Besides great characters, Gwynne treats readers to thrilling battle sequences and set pieces. The action is visceral and keeps focused on the characters throughout. The magic is also more prominent than ever before. I remember one particular scene in TFatF involving a ritual that creeped the hell out of me as it was so much darker than anything that had happened in the series beforehand. Gwynne takes that horror and increases it tenfold here, exposing readers to blood sacrifices, fanatical cultists and the terrifying machinations of the Kadoshim. There is a reason they are considered monsters.
To conclude, A Time of Dread is the next step in the evolution that is John Gwynne’s writing and the beginning of yet another epic series that I have no doubt will become one of my all-time favourites. As I have stated in every single review of Gwynne’s work, the man is a master storyteller. I also recommend listening to the audiobook narrated by Damian Lynch, who also narrated TFatF. His voicework is some of the best in the business.