Malice – John Gwynne

Malice_fc_1-390x600It took me a while to read Malice (book one of The Faithful and the Fallen), though not through any fault of the book – someone absconded with my copy when I was only halfway through, and didn’t return it for three months.

Malice’s blurb is technically accurate, but doesn’t play to the book’s strengths – it makes it out to be standard “farm-boy on an epic quest” fiction, when it is much more complex and interesting than that. Malice is set in an already unstable world cartwheeling towards an apocalyptic god-war that only half of the characters believe in, and the massive societal and personal shifts that this brings.The characters are complex, you engage with them fully, and it is surprisingly subtle for a book with hammer-wielding giants in.

Overall, it’s good. Very good – one of the better fantasy novels I’ve read in a while. Because of the scale the author is working on (an entire continent, multiple protagonists) and the originality of the setting, it takes a while to grab you; there is a lot of information/background to process at once. However, once you do sort out the geography in your head, the book is quite easy going. All the characters have clearly different names and personalities, and no esoteric knowledge is required.

Comparisons to A Song of Ice and Fire are easy to find, if you go looking for them – fate of a kingdom, wolves, hopping between characters’ heads. The publicity for the book seems to play up that angle, but I think that does Malice a disservice. Despite superficial similarities, the two series’ are markedly different in both style and tone; if you go looking for a Game of Thrones copy, you’ll be disappointed. Gwynne’s book is more grounded in the daily lives of its characters, and focuses primarily on the consequences of politics, not the politics themselves. Read both series, but read them for different reasons.

Gwynne’s particular strength, it seems to me, is combat: the violence in Malice is fast; confusing when appropriate, clear when not; and visceral – you worry for the characters, and they don’t escape unscathed. It is refreshing to read a series where the protagonist is not an unstoppable killing machine, and where the fighting makes sense: you can see each sword stroke, and duels in particular are very tense.

Part of me would like the author to be slightly kinder to his characters – several crowning moments of triumph are softened or pulled in the name of realism. That, however, is not a real criticism – the book doesn’t need to be wish-fulfillment fodder, I’m just a sucker for that kind of thing. Frankly, the main criticism I’d make is that it is slow-starting. Swapping protagonist every chapter takes a while to be effective, as you just don’t care about them until you have seen each character a few times. However, the scale of the story does somewhat demand a slow start – it needs to be endured. Perseverance is worth it a few chapters in.

Malice is solid fantasy, with enough new material to keep it interesting, a complex narrative, and with a setting that is different enough to not be tired. If you enjoy fantasy, you should enjoy this, if you think fantasy is for simplistic morons, this might help change your mind. In the end, I’d strongly recommend it: It’s a fresh take on a genre that is frequently stale, though it builds on tropes and conventions enough to feel familiar. 

Malice is available on Amazon for a far-more-than-reasonable price. I’ve just bought the second one.


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