Published: 6th December 2012 by Pan Macmillan AU
Format: Hardcover, 672 pages
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A black sun is rising …
Young Corban watches enviously as boys become warriors under King Brenin’s rule, learning the art of war. He yearns to wield his sword and spear to protect his king’s realm. But that day will come all too soon. Only when he loses those he loves will he learn the true price of courage.
The Banished Lands has a violent past where armies of men and giants clashed shields in battle, the earth running dark with their heartsblood. Although the giant-clans were broken in ages past, their ruined fortresses still scar the land. But now giants stir anew, the very stones weep blood and there are sightings of giant wyrms. Those who can still read the signs see a threat far greater than the ancient wars. Sorrow will darken the world, as angels and demons make it their battlefield. Then there will be a war to end all wars.
High King Aquilus summons his fellow kings to council, seeking an alliance in this time of need. Some are skeptical, fighting their own border skirmishes against pirates and giants. But prophesy indicates darkness and light will demand two champions, the Black Sun and the Bright Star. They would be wise to seek out both, for if the Black Sun gains ascendancy, mankind’s hopes and dreams will fall to dust.
John Gwynne tells his story through the eyes of a large cast of characters, each readily identified with and easy to believe. The striking thing is that Gwynne has chosen characters that are usually looked over to narrate his book: never the power players or chief politicians, but their guards, children, best friends and counsellors. It lends a quality to this epic fantasy that most others lack, bringing an element of reality to the narrative. The larger-than-life characters and their deeds are tempered by voices that tell the story. Although the characters easily fall into archetypes, I think the author does new things with them and, refreshingly, the young boy never saves everyone single-handedly, nor do the females defy social norms and jump into battle. The author avoids things that would have made me roll my eyes at and think how typical.
Of the cast, Corban and his sister Cywen resonated with me the most – both on the cusp of adulthood and desperate to prove themselves. Although I quickly sympathised with Veradis, Prince Nathair’s first-sword (or champion) and initially disliked Kastell because of his perceived arrogance, the more time I spent with the characters, the more my earlier assumptions were challenged. Veradis proves to be incapable of independent thought and malleable to the influence of others, while Kastell grows into a resolute, courageous man who I admired.
In addition to a great cast, Malice boasts an incredible landscape that forms a backdrop to the action. Dotted with artefacts left by colonies of giants, who have long since receded into the northern wilderness, the land is slowly being woken by strange magics. Sightings of giant ant colonies, mythical wyrms, wolven and fearsome draigs have unsettled the Kings and Queens of The Banished Lands, and they rally together to protect themselves. When ancient prophesy telling of a God-War between Elyon and Asroth, fought by their mortal champions, comes to light, everyone scrambles to ally themselves with the strongest contenders. John Gwynne has vividly brought his kingdoms to life, and it’s easy to lose oneself in the world he has created.
Although the lands, their monarchs and their alliances are difficult to grasp at first, perseverance on the reader’s behalf is rewarded with a deep understanding of the cultures and histories of the lands, and the bonds that tie them together. The plot progresses in a fairly predictable way, but there are mysteries and loose threads here that I believe will end up being important in the later books. John Gwynne never obviously points to something and says pay attention guys, this is important, but I feel that as the series progresses he will reveal clues that readers will have missed on their first perusal of this novel.
Malice is almost perfectly balanced in terms of its action, character development and world building. The only thing I would have liked to see improved is how the author handled fight scenes. I feel that successful fight scenes are either told in first person or third person limited – in both cases shadowing one character and showing us what they experience, or in third person objective, relating the whole battle without focussing on a particular character. The author has chosen to write his novel in third person limited, and shifts the perspective from character to character between chapters. However, in fight scenes, this character will not only tell us what is happening to him/herself, they will, confusingly, also tell us what is happening on the other side of the battlefield. It was hard for me to get into the fight scenes because of the jumps between telling me what the narrating character was experiencing to an omniscient view of the whole battle.
An exciting 2012 fantasy début, Malice will be loved by fans of Brent Weeks, Brandon Sanderson and Robin Hobb for his emphasis on character development, and is, in my opinion, a perfect entry-level book. An author to watch, John Gwynne has shown that he has the talent to go far in this field, and I hope the follow-up novels in the series will be as exciting and well executed as this one.