An absolute tour-de-force epic fantasy tale about family and loyalty.
Good versus evil. Darkness versus light. Angels versus demons. Chosen ones. These fantasy tropes have been the basis for some of fantasy's most renowned works including J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time. With modern fantasy trends descending the grimdark path, Malice, the first book in John Gwynne's The Faithful and the Fallen series, is refreshingly old school and a reminder of why these fantasy tropes are so beloved.
Set in the world of the Banished Lands, a vast continent once ruled by giants, it accounts the tale of a looming God War and the search for two chosen champions, the Black Sun and the Bright Star, that will decide the fate of the world. Being the first book, there is a lot of worldbuilding here to establish the setting, characters and stakes. Gwynne takes his time to flesh out the world and although some people may find the first half a little too slow for their liking, the second half makes up for it with plenty of revelations, heart-breaking moments, bloody battles and betrayals. The last ten percent in particular had me at the edge of my seat and Gwynne sets up the sequel, Valour, in such a way that I immediately picked it up afterwards. Personally, I loved every moment, reading well into the night without realising the time. The chapters are short, the language accessible and the dialogue fun and engaging.
At the heart of Malice are its characters and there are many. The story unfolds through a multitude of POVs with the main being Veradis, a warrior that finds himself rubbing shoulders with the Banished Land's most powerful, and Corban, a young boy training to become a warrior so as to sit his Long Night and become a man. Others include: Cywen, a stablehand and sister to Corban who's quick with a knife and even quicker to defend her family; Camlin, a woodsman and bandit torn between his morals and loyalty; Evnis, a counsellor driven by both ambition and vengeance; and Kastell, a young baron with a restless spirit who would prefer nothing more than to travel but finds himself dragged into a political conflict he wants no part in. I really enjoyed each character's arc, especially that of Corban who is without doubt the main protagonist. His story may tread the old fantasy trope of the chosen one, but this is the chosen one done right and a reminder of why such a trope is so popular and beloved in the first place.
These characters are but a taste of the diverse and expansive cast that call the Banished Lands home. Gwynne writes in such a way that it never gets confusing as to characters' identities and factions. My favourites were the old herbalist Brina and crippled stablemaster Gar, both of which serve as mentors to Corban throughout the course of the book. Another stand out was Maquin, Kastell's personal bodyguard, who serves as both friend and counsellor to the young warrior. We also get to meet some non-human characters such as the exiled giant Alcyon who plays a significant role in events and the giant wolf cub Storm whom Corban quickly forms a bond with near the beginning of the story. The moments between Corban and Storm were some of my favourite and I think most pet owners will feel the same. In fact, you will probably go and hug your dog a few times while reading.
Gwynne also does an exceptional job of bringing the Banished Lands to life with its vast continent-spanning forests preyed upon by wolven, draigs and giant wyrms and ancient fortresses that seemed to have sprouted from the earth itself. It is more akin to ancient Britain and Ireland rather than your typical medieval European fantasy setting. One thing that really stood out for me was the language of the giants which Gywnne draws heavily from Gaelic Irish for. Being an Irish person (with only a shockingly basic understanding) I was pleasantly surprised when I first heard the giants speak and realised that I understood them. It is a nice touch to the world that further adds to the feel of an ancient world.
Overall, Malice is an absolute tour-de-force epic fantasy tale that reminded me why I fell in love with the genre in the first place. I am already a hundred pages into the sequel as I review this and have no intentions of stopping there. I delight in knowing that this is a completed series with a completed sequel series too, and can see myself spending the foreseeable future in the Banished Lands. I highly recommend this to all fantasy readers.
Malice by John Gwynne is the perfect start to an epic fantasy- a coming of age hook, compelling characters and worldbuilding, a large cast; and it’s all bound together with wisdom and heart.