A Time of Dread – by John Gwynne – Of Blood and Bone Book 1
4.0 / 5.0 stars.
Yeah, it’s pretty good. I’d recommend it.
So, I’ve had to rewrite this a couple times. I maaaay’ve gone off on some random tangents. You know, once or twice.
Things have changed in the Banished Lands.
You may remember the Banished Lands, hallmark of John Gwynne’s first fantasy series—a four novel quartet entitled The Faithful and the Fallen—which pitted the forces of good against those of evil to decide the fate of a continent. As the series progressed, however, the line between good and evil blurred slightly.
Here’s where I stop and say “If you haven’t read tFatF yet, then stop reading this review and damn well get on with it”. Seriously, though. I mean, seriously. tFatF is one of my favorite series of all time—it actually may be my fav of all time, as I can’t now think of anything that tops it. Each book is a finely crafted masterpiece that works both by itself AND as part of a larger plot. And since everyone still reading this HAS assuredly read tFatF… I will continue.
With the line between good and evil having been frayed slightly at the end of tFatF quartet, we re-enter the Banished Lands in a new series set a century after the events that occurred within. And immediately enter a world of grey.
Well, more like RED.
The Ben Elim, saviors of the Faithful in the original series, now rule over a majority of the Banished Lands, keeping the peace between its peoples while attempting to hunt their opposites, the Kadoshim, to extinction. But the way that they keep the peace is, well… less than ideal. A so-called ‘flesh-tithe’ is taken from each subservient people, warriors taken and trained within the Ben Elim’s home of Drassil—and to be used as they see fit. Now, while all this seems well and good at first… not all is so simple as it seems. In addition to keeping the peace and hunting the Kadoshim, the tithe is only used when and where the Ben Elim desire. So maybe a land that has rejected the tithe comes under attack by Kadoshim. The Ben Elim will of course purge the evil-doers and save the people; but maybe not just yet. Not until the tithe is agreed upon. Maybe not until it is paid in double. They might even delay a while while the land’s own army is weakened, their spirit broken, before sweeping in and carrying the day.
In brief, it seems that when the Ben Elim became flesh, it changed more than just their form. And yet, upon reading AToD, I was assured that Ben Elim didn’t change. And this is my first issue with the text. Although Ben Elim aren’t supposed to change—much, at least—there were some (but one in particular) that underwent a drastic, and uncharacteristic change somewhere deep in the story. I really can’t address it “spoiler-free”, so I’m just gonna skip it. It’s not—not exactly, anyway—my main problem with AToD.
The Banished Lands have retained their allure. This is a key element to this continued success of the series. If the description and world-building and detail had slipped during that hundred unwritten years…—but it didn’t. The lands are still as lovely as ever, with AToD taking us back to a number of its old haunts while also including some new locales. A majority of Drem’s POV takes place in the Desolation (north of Gramm’s Hold)—a portion of the world largely unseen up til now. And while many of the names of the land and their ownerships have changed over time, their detail and description have not.
In addition to Drem, the story is carried by an additional trio of POVs, none of them a holdover (POV) from tFatF. Certain other characters (giants, Ben Elim) make appearances, but not as POVs. Sig, a giant and bit character from tFatF, is back and is now a POV. She hunts the Banished Lands for the Kadoshim, spearheading the task left by Corban. Riv is a trainee for the elite guard at Drassil. Theirs’ is the duty to protect the Ben Elim, a duty that Riv has longed for her whole life. Aforementioned Drem is a trapper in the Desolation, a land outside the realm of the Ben Elim’s sphere of protection. Hardy folk here eke out a living far from the eyes of Elyon’s Chosen. Bleda is a prisoner—or a “ward”—taken by the Ben Elim to assure the cooperation of his kin. He now lives at Drassil, amidst his enemy everyday. But not all is as straightforward as it seems in the Realm of the Faithful. And in the shadows and far corners of the Banished Lands, something lurks. It is not only the Kadoshim that this new world should fear, but division, in all its forms.
Anyways, while Gwynne’s return to the Banished Lands isn’t quite as ‘shades of grey’ as many worlds, particularly those in the ‘grimdark’ genre, the lines between good and evil have been skewed, even further than they were in the original. It provides an interesting precedent—of just what happens after the day is won, when the heavens and earth meet, when angels openly rule the land they have always protected—and I think it will deliver an interesting series.
This re-[something] is not entirely without its issues, though. It seems that the former series is not as resolved as maybe the author himself thought. Events a hundred years past are alluded to time and again; though mostly by giants (that can live millennia or more) and Ben Elim (who are essentially immortal, unless slain), but also by crows. I didn’t realize crows could live for a hundred years. I’m sure this is something that will be completely supported by wikipedia however, when I look it up.
(So, the oldest documented crow lived to be 59. Pretty good, but not centuries, eh?)
There also seems to be a bit of nostalgia going on in the text. Characters from tFatF that perhaps Gwynne was reluctant to let go, but it could be that he wanted something to bridge the gap, or relate the two. Personally, I would just suggest a novella in-between—just something to bridge the gap a bit. My main point is, characters need to be able to die. Any or all of them. Nothing can last forever. If it’s tried, then eventually any story you put them in will fall apart. No one’s luck is that bad that they can carry a long, long series without growing tedious. Um, case in point… Sword of Truth, Wheel of Time, Brett Favre (not saying he should’ve died), Fast and Furious (definitely saying they should’ve all died).
Now, John Gwynne hasn’t exactly done this, not too much, but… damn. I TRIED to write this out twice already. Oh well, whatever. He’s got to watch out that he doesn’t overdo it in the future.
My main problem—and the only one that isn’t petty—comes more than three-quarters of the way through. It’s hard to pin down an exact page or chapter, but… something… changes.
From my experience with my own writing, this is where the author runs out of time. The story could have been longer, probably SHOULD HAVE been longer, but. Maybe there was a deadline to meet. Maybe anxiety set in. Maybe there were family or professional or other issues. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Just… around the 360 page mark, something changes.
Aaaaagghhh… This is gonna be hard to explain.
The story feels incomplete here. Like something was removed, maybe? The chapters just don’t fit together as they did before. People’s (even Ben Elim’s) motivations change—suddenly, without warning. As a plot twist, this can be effective. Once or twice. But there are so many little skews around here, for no reason that I can tell. It just feels… off.
Then there’s the end.
It seems abrupt.
One of the things I loved about tFatF were that each installment was like a mini-story in itself. There were moments and events that tied each book to the next, plot threads that crossed between each book, but every book could be read as like, an episode, as part of a season. The issue I have with AToD isn’t…. uh. It’s not that the story ends too soon, exactly. The last POV chapter for each character is at a natural stopping point. It’s just… one or two before this—especially with Riv, with Bleda—their story seems incomplete. Like we’ve gone from point M to P, just left out N and O somewhere. Which is a big N-O (heh, puns). Right, um. Drem’s ending feels forced, like it was supposed to be drawn out—possibly to a different result, even—but then ran out of time.
Does that make sense? If it doesn’t, or you think I’m totally full of it—drop me a line, yeah?
But first, read the Faithful and the Fallen—it’s excellent. And then read A Time of Dread. It’s really pretty good.