Faithless, from Graham Austin-King (The Riven Wyrde Saga), is an intelligent, complex, exciting, dark, and somewhat transgressive story about a young man’s journey from poor son of a farmer to, well, you’ll have to read it to find out. It is an enjoyable, if not perfect, read that is chock full of clever ideas and resonant themes delivered passionately by its author. The e-tome we received at Grimdark Magazine, weighing in at a hefty 136,000+ words, is labeled as a draft, so I will not be directly quoting from the text in this review. It is the hope of this reviewer that the book that Austin-King ultimately publishes will be significantly shorter.
The story follows parallel narratives. First, we are introduced to the boy Wynn via the obligatory scene in which the child of a family too poor to nurture him is sold into a brutal life at a dreadful institution (Blood Song, Red Sister, etc). In this particular case, Wynn is sold into the service of the temple of the Forgefather and relegated to the work in the mines, breaking rocks and mining ore for the temple Forge. Wynn’s narrative takes turns with the narrative of Kharios, a young man, novice of the temple, caught between a rock and a not-so-hard place. (You’ll get the joke when you read it.) These two narratives are both told in very close, limited third-person and converge somewhat late in the novel, but the whole ploy is cleverly planned and deftly handled.
Neither Wynn nor Kharios is an exceptional character and both seem a bit like milquetoasts for most of the story until the final climactic challenge. Similarly both characters are do-gooders, for the most part, though they occasionally regret having to leave friends behind on their way up the temple’s political/religious ladder. Near the end Kharios develops a relationship with Leesha, a girl his own age, and some YA romance is implied (though this is, thankfully, not a YA story. Sorry, kids.) Wynn also has a few friends in the mines and eventually the temple, but no one of special interest to this reviewer, other than Brial, his partner at the forge, who is of limited interest in and of himself but is essential to the plot and the characterizations of the other characters. As such, the characters in Faithless would have been somewhat ho-hum were it not for the Priest, Ossan, who pretty much steals the show.
Austin-King keeps his cards close with Ossan, revealing him at times to be a kindly old Priest, supportive of the boys’ efforts to master the various chants and strokes required to earn their rings of mastery for forging special metalworks inscribed with questionably magical glyphs. At other times, Ossan is a brutal taskmaster, a mean and nasty paternal figure, and much, much worse. Austin-King must have loved creating this character, and it shows. Ossan is deep and dark, yet fatherly and wise, and he speaks beautifully and ponderously, reminding me of old Ultan, the librarian in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. It is a beautiful job of characterization, and almost had me rooting for the old Priest despite his numerous egregious faults.
The plot of Faithless takes a while to unfold, perhaps slightly too long. It revolves around Wynn’s episodes experiencing the extremely harsh life of the mines and his wondering what the hell he is doing there when he is supposed to be serving the temple. This is interwoven with Kharios’s search for artifacts related the Fall of the Forgefather and his religion from great mythical power to sniveling servants and peddlers of material goods, metalworks, etc. There has been a physical Fall as well, as we find out that the temple itself was a massive structure before the religion and the building imploded. It’s a clever backstory, and well developed, with a beautifully realized setting, but at times I felt I was reading a Scooby Doo novel in which Shaggy and Scooby are trapped in the mines with scary creatures while Fred and Velma search the library for clues to the mystery. Fortunately, Austin-King turns the action up to eleven as the story rolls toward its frantic, harrowing climax, and ferocious ending.
Adding depth to this overall intelligently constructed story is its main theme, which can be described in a nutshell as Do We Serve God or Does God Serve Us. The question is adeptly presented albeit conclusively answered without much room for speculation, but it does form a solid, thought-provoking glue that holds together the action, suspense, and delightful mayhem in the second half of the story.
The other main element that holds this story together is the very creative and vivid setting Austin-King has created, where most of the action takes place. It’s an underground dystopian city, Aspiration, built in a huge cavern with only a small crack at the top to let smoke out and occasionally a few drops of rain in. The characters must access the cavern through a series of ladders or a makeshift elevator, and from there they can access the mines below, and below that… who knows what lurks? It’s at times claustrophobic, but also gritty, dark, and exceedingly grim. Not only does it serve to set an appropriately hopeless, moody background setting, but it also serves to contain what is often a meandering story. If the old cliché is true that the setting should be a character in the story, then that job is done well here.
While there are many good (and some really good) things going on in Faithless, there are still some things that give me reservations about giving it an unqualified recommendation. I hope some of these things will be addressed before it is released. First of all, it’s way too long for what it is. There are elements that probably could be cut, perhaps even one whole narrative strain could have been folded into the other. It is also riddled with bloated narration in which the author reveals the characters thoughts excessively about things we already know from the action and dialogue. At times, lots of times, I found myself skimming the text in between patches of dialogue since much of it seemed excessive and self-indulgent. The dialogue, other than the speeches made by Ossan, is dull and lifeless and seems to exist only to dump information and plot clues. Some matters of craft also twisted my nipple, such as forced simultaneity, pronoun-antecedent ambiguity, and lack of sentence structure variation, among others—stuff you don’t see as much in fiction published by the big houses, I’m sorry to say. Hopefully, these few little things will be ironed out in the final edit, and even if they are not, only the most knit-picking of dickheads will probably notice them. Hey… wait… a… minute.
Anyhow, for those of us who press on to the end of Faithless, the payoff is big, and overall, it is an intelligently conceived, exciting, and passionately told story.
But is it grimdark? There is certainly no moral ambiguity in the main characters, with the possible exception of Ossan, but despite his split personality, I think it’s a stretch to say that even he is a morally grey character. Yep, there are good guys and bad guys here—and more morally right and wrong situations than you can even guess. So, despite its violence and its persistent and overwhelming grimness, I’m not sure it doesn’t fall more toward heroic fantasy than grimdark. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Nevertheless, I guess readers should decide for themselves whether this fits into their category of grimdark. For me, it doesn’t really matter. It’s a delightfully grim and dark story that, despite a few minor hiccups, should be a crowd pleaser. Check it out.
Originally published in Grimdark Magazine #12.