In the temple of the Forgefather, fallen priests chant endlessly to an absent god, shaping metal through ritual and half-forgotten arts. Beneath them, in the subterranean city of Aspiration, miners scrabble for ore in cramped tunnels and try to resist the lure of the hungry dark.
Once, the Forgefather’s voice rang in every hammer blow, and priests wielded divine power to strike down enemies of the faith. But the Forgefather has been silent for countless years now, and much of the priesthood’s power has been lost.
When an attempt to regain that power goes terribly wrong and unleashes horrors into the temple, a novice flees down into the darkness of the mines. Deep under the death, he seeks salvation, redemption, and the last whispers of a dead god.
I really enjoyed Faithless. It’s a story about complex morality and difficult situations, and the author doesn’t pull punches. Neither the mines nor the temple are easy places to survive, and the characters face consequences for their choices. The book is gritty without being grimdark, realistic rather than gratuitous.
The setting is original and interesting. The author builds up a complex society and culture effectively, without spending too much time showering the reader with information. That’s a definite achievement when so much of the setting is outside the standard fantasy parameters. The society in the book hangs together convincingly – it’s clear how all the different parts fit together, and what life is actually like for the characters. There are only a few, brief places where the strings are visible and the world loses that sense of realism.
Throughout the book, the atmosphere is dark and oppressive, which is fitting for something set almost entirely underground. Darkness both is, and feels like, an actual character. The claustrophobia and fear felt by the characters comes through really strongly. A real strength of this book is that character emotions are convincing and understandable – when they make the wrong choices out of fear or shame, you sympathise, rather than judge.
Graham Austin-King makes some unusual structural choices, and it takes a while for the grand shape of the narrative to come through. That’s not a criticism – not everything should be linear, and it’s done for a clear purpose. It is a little unexpected though.
My only real gripe with Faithless was that some scenes progressed a little too quickly, which meant that some of the emotional punches weren’t that hard. In a few places, there needed to be more build-up and preparation for a change in character mindset or goals. The changes made sense, but more justification was required to make them feel real.
All in all, Faithless is one of the most original and engaging works of fantasy I’ve read in quite some time. It’s got a complex world and interesting ideas. I’d strongly recommend it.
It behooves me to mention that I received a copy of Faithless free through NetGalley. I don’t believe that this has affected the impartiality of my review.