Malice is the debut novel from epic fantasy writer John Gwynne. It is the first of the four novels that make up The Faithful and the Fallen series, and when it was published in 2012 it won the David Gemmell ‘Morningstar’ Award for Best Debut. The next three books in the series, Valour, Ruin, and Wrath, were also all nominated for the David Gemmell ‘Legend’ Award novel in the years that they were published. As a reader it can sometimes take me years to get to read the books that have been waiting on my periphery and to this day I use the nominations list for the now closed David Gemmell Awards as a barometer for good fantasy writing. I had very high hopes for Malice and I was not disappointed. If as a reader you like your grimdark complex, well built, and utterly engrossing, then Malice is a perfect choice for you.
Like a lot of other authors of epic fantasy novels, Gwynne has used a third person multiple point of view style for Malice. However, there are no less than seven different perspectives being used here, and the points of view span the whole continent of the Banished Lands. As well as a vast range of characters, Gwynne includes their religions, different races, family structures, and two thousand years of prophecy and traditions. In the hands of a less skilled writer, this would easily have become very dry and boring but Gwynne’s words are magical. I will admit that it took me longer than normal to be able place all the characters and how their stories related to one other and the wider novel, but I enjoyed the learning curve and accepted it as par for the course in a novel of this magnitude. It is also worth noting that the perspectives are not evenly split. The majority of chapters are from the point of view of Corban, a teenager from Ardan, and there are huge variations in chapter lengths. Sometimes they are a single page, sometimes twenty, sometimes the perspective stays the same for a few chapters, and sometimes you get five different points of view one after the other. Malice is never a boring read, and Gwynne never failed to surprise me. What I also really appreciated about Gwynne’s style is that he is clearly aware of the potential perplexity of this world. I would say that at least the first two thirds of the novel are spent establishing the characters and world building with a slow escalation to the mind blowing finale.
A really reductive summary of Malice could boil it down to two main themes. The first and all-encompassing is the age-old fight of Good vs Evil and the second is as a coming of age narrative. However, readers should not expect such simplicity. With one notable character exception, the lines between Good and Evil are not clear-cut with the remaining characters making very human choices in this ever-darkening world. The intentions of some of the key players in Malice remains a mystery. Most perspectives seem to genuinely believe that they are following the “right” path, so as a reader it is almost impossible to identify on which side of the impending god war a character will be on. It is not until almost the very end of Malice that I had an ‘aha!’ moment, suspecting I had successfully identified the prophesised Black Sun and Bright Star; yet, even now that prediction is not confirmed. It is also unfair to suggest that Malice is merely Corban’s bildungsroman. As the majority focus of the novel, Corban’s arc takes up a significant proportion of the narrative; dealing with growing up, family struggles, navigating friendships, encountering bullies, and his warrior training in the Rowan Field. But other characters also have to deal with family conflicts, making difficult choices, and dealing with their own heart breaking losses or euphoric victories. There are many likeable characters in Malice and not all of them have a happy outcome. I would go so far as to say that most do not, and for the others it is at best an uncertain future. After an unusually happy and hopeful start the story has a bleak and violent ending.
After Gwynne had spent so long building the world of Malice, I did have some doubts that the conclusion would be satisfying. However, I need not have worried. There is a significant pace shift and some of the shortest chapters in the novel make up the final third where an intense and emotional denouement takes place. Malice does not end with any huge cliff hangers, but the key character arcs are setup to continue in the next instalment of the series. There has been a lot of focus on the potential devastation of the imminent god war and I cannot even begin to predict how it will impact the remaining characters.
I found Malice to be a hugely satisfying read and it is well worth the time invested to understand this massive world. Some of my favourite parts of the novel were the detailed duels and battle scenes, especially the focus on technical aspects such as weapon choices or fighting styles which suggests that Gwynne himself is very knowledgeable of such things. I also really liked that Gwynne has included some exceptional fantasy beasts in Malice, with draigs, wolvens and wyrms to name a few. One or two of these animals prove to be quite loveable but most add another layer of violence and fear to the story. I look forward to continuing the wonderful Faithful and Fallen saga with Valour. 4/5.