Worldbuilding: The Banished Lands

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The problem with most novels is that they’re over too quickly. Series—okay, mostly trilogies—set in the same world can give a greater sense of worth to this creation. But from good worlds can come bad novels and from lazy worlds, good novels.

The Banished Lands is an example of neither.

In The Faithful and the Fallen tetralogy by John Gwynne debuted in late-2012 with the novel Malice. This effort is a classic coming of age sequence, with some not so classic themes. Evil, it seems, is not always evil. Good, not always good. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about. Not yet, at least.

The Banished Lands is the jewel of this debut (not to take anything away from the excellence of the story). And while in Malice we are given a glimpse of the world, the following three books in the series—Valor, Ruin and Wrath—provide a gateway for a more total immersion in John Gwynne’s new creation. For all of this near-3000-page epic we wander the Banished Lands, traversing their depths to an admirable, though by no means exhaustive, extent. From the three islands in the Tethys Sea; to Arcona, the eastern sea of grass; to the western kingdom of Ardan, where much of this story takes root; to the foothills of the Bone Fells, the territory of the Jotun giant clan—the Faithful and the Fallen explores this new exquisite, detailed and imaginative land. And if this tale was not sufficient for some, have no fear! John Gwynne recently announced a further series set some thirty-ish years after the events of The Faithful and the Fallen, to take place in these same Banished Lands.

And while—I would like to note—this is not specifically a review of the series, but more a review of the world in which said series is set: the series itself was excellent. And a good story often leads to a more clear, detailed world. That being said, let’s look at some worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding Review: THE BANISHED LANDS by John Gwynne

The Banished Lands were once a land of giants, not men. Thousands of years before the events of The Faithful and the Fallen (TFatF), the five giant clans dominated the land, living beneath the rule of the first king, Skald. But then came war. The first king was murdered, and the clans fractured, warring between one another and each retreating into their own lands.

And then came man. Humans arrived from the sea, being driven out of their own lands, crossing the great sea to begin anew in what would become known as the Banished Lands (for it was here they were banished to, see). The giants further retreated into their own and for a time man and giant lived in—well, not “peace”, but as close to a thing that was possible at the time, given the situation. But as was certain to occur, men and giants went to war. And the giants, though their strength was great and their warriors fierce, could not reproduce as quickly nor in as much supply as their cousins—lost. They retreated deeply into their own lands, ceding the world to men.

Then came the events of TFatF.

There. A little background.

Every good world needs a history, and a good history can make any story that much better. Especially, if the story and history are tied, which these are.

But first we’ll focus on the land itself.

The Banished Lands is a part of its own continent, an area much like that of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, or David Dalglish’s Shadowdance or, more realistically, kinda like Europe. A realm that, while not covering the entirety of its landmass, is a complete geopolitical entity.

It is a land reminiscent of the traditional Celtic lands, with a history to match. Highlands, forests, fens, with a vast expanse of grassland in the south and east. To the west and south along with much of the north lies the sea, and to the north and east a desolate land of tundra and wastes of which, unfortunately, we get little more than a peek. Far be it of me to criticize someone’s grasp of geography, so I’ll settle with saying that for the story, for what Gwynne had in mind, the geographical world itself is exceptional. And while pictures are worth a thousand words, the hundreds of thousands he expends on the series fills in the details the map cannot pretend to.

While some series boast their own territories complete with separate languages, Gwynne simplifies his with one common tongue for men, and another for giants. Though not as… comprehensive as some others, the speech of the Banished Lands feels much less intimidating. It’s one less aspect to worry about, and enables the reader to focus on the history, the kingdoms, the characters, and of course the story. Having to translate from one tongue to another constantly—while more realistic, and when done well can really enhance the experience—can also become exhausting, and can slow the plot considerably. Once more, far be it from me to critique the author’s linguistic choice, but I think Gwynne makes the right call here. After all, Malice is certainly a Coming-of-Age novel, and while it starts off a bit slow, the pace of the plot is by no means a burden.

The Banished Lands’ currency is also shared. One that uses gold and silver and copper bits, like many other fantasy systems. Again, I think that while when done well this can enhance the story, adding definition to the world, in general it can really do more harm than good, and Gwynne’s choice to simplify it is a good one.

It’s the magic system that falls a bit short.

It’s not like the magic of the Banished Lands isn’t well thought out. It’s not that it’s absent from the story. In fact, ‘the earth power’ as it is referred to in the text, appears in the prologue. But after this, well, we just don’t hear from it too often. Again, it’s not absent, just… lacking. Magic occurs with increasing regularity in later books, but in Malice, it seems… underplayed.

It is quite possible Gwynne does this on purpose. A series that leans heavily on its use of magic calls for an in-depth, well thought out and immersive magic system—which is something that the Banished Lands just does not have. It’s not that the system is not thought out and well designed. It is. It’s just not central to the story. In fact, the tale could probably get along just fine without it, although I’m not saying it should. There’d be some tricky bits to just removing it, however. While not vital to the human POV chapters—which really dominate the book—giant history and society are deeply steeped in ‘the earth power’, and their POV chapters reflect this. But it are these giant POVs that really tie the plot together. It was their land, after all. It was stolen from them. And it’s this history that affects much of the motivation—be it for, or against—behind their actions through much of the series. But that’s a whole other can of fish.

The Banished Lands doesn’t go out of its way to reinvent the magic system. Some recent entries—the Powder Mage, Brandon Sanderson fill-in-the-blank, the Demon Cycle—have gone out of their way to overhaul the basic system, to major success. For the story of TFatF, however, the motivation to do this is simply not there. The plot is strong, the world is detailed. The story is the journey. I’m not saying Gwynne didn’t bother because he was lazy. Nothing of the sort. Just that he doesn’t really need to reinvent. I’m just saying that this was an under-explored part of TFatF, and maybe something that Gwynne will expand upon in his next series.

It’s simply that ‘the earth power’ leaves the reader wanting. It isn’t central to the plot. It seems to be written-in more than included. This could be because it’s not thoroughly thought out, or it could be that for the purpose of this story it doesn’t need to be as strong as magic systems are in other series.

It’s in the history and evolution that the Banished Lands excels.

Borrowing from Celtic themes, though not necessarily on Celtic lore (uh, of which I’m not terribly familiar), the Banished Lands creates a vivid and believable history, and one that plays strong throughout TFatF. Indeed, the creation and lore is central to the plot. A god that has broken a world he views as corrupt and evil. Before the end, this god—Elyon—stays his hand and, feeling shame from his actions, leaves the land, becoming a so-called ‘absent god’. In his stead he leaves the Faithful—a race of angel-like beings—and the Fallen—which parallel fallen angels, led by Asroth—to fight for supremacy of the land. And, like in all good lore-based Coming-of-Age fantasies: a prophecy. One that predicts the fate of the world will be decided by a war. A war between the Bright Star and Black Sun, the avatars of Elyon and Asroth respectively, to decide the fate of the world.

This prophecy is excellent—not too long, not too short, just vague enough, and plays out quite well through the series; through a series of plot-twists I personally never saw coming.

And beneath it all: the lore. And the peoples’ belief in the lore.

It’s important when borrowing from existing cultures to not borrow too heavily. Not rip off the names and places, for example. If someone is going to steal something straight up—they might as well change the names and places, right? In his world of Paradise, Victor Milán does this. It is one of the laziest worldbuilding efforts in a series I’ve ever read. John Gwynne doesn’t. He borrows: from the angels and fallen of Abrahamic lore; from the highlands and forests and fens of the British Isles; to the place names and use of language (though not word-for-word, or name-for-name. He uses the style of the Celts, he doesn’t just copy and paste of of the encyclopedia) of the Gaels as well. A good author knows how to borrow from something, from someone, to create something new. And John Gwynne is a good author.

One people, one land.

For the most part, this describes the Banished Lands. There are idiosyncrasies between the peoples, certain things that differentiate them from one another. And of course, there is the dynamic between giants and men. There are a few exceptions, however.

One is the Gadrai. The giant hunters of Forn. While not exactly a separate culture or ethnicity (they are made up of people from each corner of the Banished Lands, anyone who kills a giant is welcome to join), they maintain a distinctive status. A kind of reverence, of awe, of guardianship towards the land. It is more of a society alike the Knights Templar, the Knights Hospitaller.

The other inhabits Arcona—‘the sea of grasses’—who ride small ponies instead of horses, boast a darker complexion and inhabit the sea of grasses. They have a different look than the rest of the Banished Lands, as well as different values and a different culture. They are not overly explored in TFatF, as there is no POV character from the (whatever). They are an entity I hope Gwynne explores in his coming series.

While most of the cultures (of men) are similar to one another, as are those of the giants (meaning, no giant clan is that different from one another), and the culture of the Banished Lands borrows from the Gaelic peoples—the creativity of it, though not too innovative, is quite well done. More importantly, it all works. It is not forced together (i.e. If it doesn’t seem to work; make it).

Magic System:                              Acceptable
Cultures:                                        Excellent
Lore:                                                Excellent
History:                                           Exquisite
Details:                                            Decent
As it Complements the Story:   Excellent

WORLDBUILDING:                     EXCELLENT

If you’re after some kind of out of 10 score, tough.

I mean, okay okay okay. Um somewhere between an 8 and 9. Call it 8.5/10

The best (albeit first and only) Worldbuilding system I’ve reviewed thus far. Hope someone liked it somewhere, at least.

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