Malice by John Gwynne
The Faithful and the Fallen, Book 1.
Published by TOR UK December 2012 (Review copy received).
Review by Mark Yon
Well, I had high hopes for this one.
Unlike The Red Knight by Miles Cameron, which I read and reviewed recently, this one didn’t meet them, sadly.
There is an unwritten rule that reviews should not spend most of their time comparing a book with other books. The review should be focused on that book, the emphasis on the impression that book leaves.
However, they are both debut Fantasy novels published at about the same time, treading similar ground, and I suspect that readers may have to make a choice between the two. So, even with that sensible suggestion in mind, I’m going to ignore it, because I think my disappointment here may be connected, or at least affected by my reading of one straight after the other.
So: in my opinion, comparing The Red Knight with Malice, covering similar ground but different books, Malice is by far the weaker. Of the two, Malice is simpler, less complex and more straightforward – some would say predictable.
Before I hear cries of indignation that such a statement might cause, let me say that there is nothing particularly wrong with that, at all. There’s many a book out there that readers enjoy because they know what’s going to happen at the end. It’s the journey that’s important.
I could further say that, to its credit, Malice doesn’t do the thing that irritated me about The Red Knight – lots of different narratives that make following the plot unnecessarily complicated for some readers.
No, there’s nothing wrong in limiting perspective and focusing the tale on the important points that matter. Lots of authors manage that, and well. Where Malice falls down for me is that the overall tale is too much like we’ve read before.
Ok. At this point, let’s give you an idea of the plot. Synopsis From the TOR website:
“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.”
For all its length, and, to be fair, the pages can turn, my feeling at the end was that it doesn’t bring anything new to the table that I haven’t read before. Nor indeed anything I couldn’t see coming. For new Fantasy readers, this may be fine. If it helps, I will say that I had similar issues with Brent Weeks’ Night Angel series and Michael J Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations series. (And, conversely, that might mean that if you enjoyed those two series, you might like this novel.)
Strangely, in terms of style and plot, Malice rather reminded me of David Eddings’ Belgariad series, or Raymond Feist’s Magician, both of which I did enjoy – about 30 years ago. Like in Eddings’ and Feist’s books, the characters in Malice are fair enough, archetypal ones, easy to determine, with destiny clearly awaiting, their conflict forecast from the start with the tale moving towards a tumultuous conclusion.
But trouble lies ahead. Whereas Eddings or Feist would keep the momentum going with an underlying tone of humour and crackling dialogue, here it falls flat. Characters in Malice say what you expect them to say, and do exactly what you expect them to do, rather as if the book has been produced by committee. There are good ones, bad ones, young ones, old wise ones… they’re all in there. Worryingly, they all become rather interchangeable, or so generally defined that I soon forgot who was who and had to keep reminding myself. There’s breadth but no depth, lots of deep and meaningful proclamations but without the meaning behind them to make the reader think ‘this is important’. Malice clearly has good intentions, but for me lacks any sort of emotional punch or resonance to make a lasting impression.
In addition, whereas books of this type usually show a progression towards an epic climax to create tension and anticipation, in Malice it didn’t. Instead, I found myself wanting to hurry things along, not because I wanted to read what happens, but because I wanted it to finish, never a good sign when reading a book.
We have heroes and bad guys, grizzled old warriors and young innocents, Kings, Queens and magic. There are characters fulfilling destinies and having that rite of passage. This is no different to The Red Knight, in that respect. It should work, but in Malice it all just felt too simple and perhaps more appropriate for a Young Adult rather than something I could really get my teeth into. Using my own personal preferences, it’s nearer Karen Miller’s Innocent Mage than Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch. And although I hate to say it, in Malice it’s all been done before, in a too-similar way and often better.
I had hoped that this book would herald the return of High Fantasy, that it would become something to recommend to others as something of value. In the end it comes across like the TV series Merlin does to me: it looks good on first impression and it should work, but in the end it’s not worth the retreading of tired tropes and becomes something I avoid mentioning when people use it as an example of current Fantasy. With Malice, the pages turned, but after a hopeful start, in the end, and disappointingly, I was left with a depressing feeling of ‘so what?’
And that makes me feel rather sad.
I’m still convinced that there is space out there for an intelligent, engaging, exciting Fantasy novel that uses the ideals of High Fantasy without going down the George RR Martin/Abercrombie path of darkness. This isn’t it. As I said, it’s not bad, there’s just not that much to elevate it to something memorable. And reading it so soon after The Red Knight really pointed this out.
A major disappointment for me, especially after one so highly anticipated. But some will like it.
Mark Yon, November/December 2012.