I’m a sucker for the chosen one/coming of age type story, particularly in a fantasy setting. I’ve read two dozen or more, probably many more, but am always on the lookout for a new hero to faithfully follow. Malice, by John Gwynne, introduces several possibilities.
The obvious candidate is the young boy, Corban. The son of a blacksmith, he is untried and untrained. He thinks he lacks courage, but after he enters the Rowan Field to train with the kingdom’s best warriors, he soon learns that being a man is less about courage and more about conviction.
Across the Banished Lands, Nathair, son of the High King, embodies all the traits of a good and true man. He is a talented warrior and an inspired leader. He is courageous and innovative. He is beloved by the men of his warband and his faithful first sword, Veradis.
Veradis is another candidate. Another good man, perhaps the most talented fighter of them all. He is desperate to please his father, and to prove himself. His devotion to Nathair and his cause all but blinds him.
And we have Kastell. An orphan raised by his uncle and tormented by his cousin. He has anger management issues, but the presence of his faithful shieldman helps balance the scales.
Corban’s sister has a part to play, but she couldn’t possibly be the chosen one, despite her courage and aptitude with throwing knives. She’s a girl. We also follow the adventures of one of the woodsmen, a bandit who doesn’t seem all bad. He can’t be the chosen one, either. He’s killed too many innocents. Cywen and Camlin, the girl and the bandit, are important enough to snag a point of view each, however, and will certainly have roles to play as the larger plot unfolds. There are also a number of other secondary characters who thicken the tapestry of this novel.
The story of our four principles unfolds slowly. There is a prophecy and the stirrings of war. The giants are raiding and the oath stones are bleeding. The High King seeks to unite all the kingdoms under his banner to prepare for the champions of the prophecy, the Bright Star and the Black Sun, and the war to end all wars.
Though fate pulls the strings of the four young men, they have their own battles to fight, and through these, two will emerge as chosen, one the opposite side of the other, leaving the other two destined to support the side they choose.
Despite the lure of a familiar and epic story, I found Malice a bit difficult to read. Gwynne loves commas more than I do and sometimes his sentences are difficult to make sense of. Once I got a rhythm going, I was able to interpret his meaning more clearly. Or just assume I did. The pacing of the novel also confounded me for a while. Time passed at vastly different speeds during each separate narrative, which made it difficult for me to connect events and make predictions. The writing and characterisation felt immature and often times it seemed as if Gwynne had a checklist of encounters his heroes must endure in order to qualify for the quintessential fantasy experience. Evnis, our principle villain, didn’t feel truly evil, either. His actions were more directed by disappointment than truly villainous intent. Or so it seemed to me.
I did enjoy the book, quibbles aside. I persisted through nearly seven hundred pages and actually looked up the release date of the next installment. From this, I can only draw that conclusion that not every book needs to be perfect in order to win over its readers, which, as a reviewer, is something I know well. I’ve read some dreadful books, and loved them. I’ve endured barely legible prose in order to stick with one essential character. Malice isn’t dreadful, nor is it unreadable. Not even close. More, it’s just not polished. Not really tight. Still, it’s compelling enough to hold a jaded old reader like me for a week, first page to the last.
This is John Gwynne’s first novel and I think he’ll learn as he goes. His enthusiasm is clear. He’s got a huge story tucked away in his head and it’s taking him some time to sort it and tell it. He’ll learn where to nip and tuck. Expected publication of Valor (The Faithful and the Fallen, #2) is July 22, 2014.
Written for and originally posted at SFCrowsnest.