Faithless by Graham Austin King
I received a free copy of Faithless in exchange for an honest review and would like to thank Graham Austin-King for this opportunity.
Faithless is set in a dark and claustrophobic subterranean environment. The action mainly takes place within the temples, the underground cities, or within the literal darkness of the mines. Everyone within this cataclysmic domain revere and offer service to the Forgefather. We follow a 15-year-old lad called Wynn who has essentially been sold off as a slave to this mysterious cause by his father in exchange for a few coins. Wynn's under the impression that he's here to study and pay homage for what should only be 12 months. Perhaps the truth of the matter is a bit darker than that. The second point of view perspective is that of novice priest Kharios who has been within this territory below the surface for years and goes about his days working a forge.
The narrative commences at a slowish pace introducing the areas, creating depth to characters, and explaining the scenarios they find themselves within. Wynn, new to his role, learns about his duties and the place he finds himself in at the same time as we do which led me to feel a heightened affinity towards him. Likewise, with Kharios, we're introduced to his day to day routines. It's approximately 3 point of view chapters each before it reverts back to the other character. The despondent yet unique world presented here is admirably crafted. Although I found no aspect of this tale boring, the book gradually builds up pace and intensity until about 60% through where the whole atmosphere and direction of the narrative changes with potentially horrific consequences for all involved. There's also a stunning twist at about 85%. I did predict it but I'm apparently a member of a small minority that does. Unique as well is that it always seems that there's some great power all around that is just out of anybody's reach.
Faithless is a dark fantasy / grimdark tale that isn't for the lighthearted. It features element some readers will not enjoy such as murder, seemingly needless brutality, grotesque characters, rape, and paedophilia. The final two are hinted at but not actually shown on the page. A typical grimdark trait is stories following characters who are bastards readers can love to hate. I didn't hate either of the main perspectives here. If anything the opposite and I'd have made similar decisions that they do which unfortunately often have terrible results. There are definitely a few horrific individuals worth looking out for too including Ossan and Garl.
Faithless is an utterly dark, unique, well-written, and deeply engaging grimdark story from a talented author who's definitely one to watch.
8.5 / 10 -- James Tivendale
I loved this story. It treated the reader with intelligence and asked the right questions. It built a fully-realized world and a fascinating religion while mired in the depths of a dank underground cavern. It was well-researched and informative, scary and exciting, insightful and metaphoric, compelling and complex.
The story shifts between Wynn and Kharios, both students at different stages of their training towards priesthood. They live inside and beneath an ancient Temple whose followers worship the Forgefather, god of smithing. Centuries ago, a mysterious and catastrophic event called the Fall nearly destroyed all remnants of this world-wide religion, and the surviving devout are anchored to serve in this last remaining Temple. Rituals, chants and forging techniques are taught to the students while they attempt to ascend the ranks, while also having to prove themselves adept at mining underground caverns under horrifying conditions. Death can easily be found around every corner, and dire punishments await those who can not make their quota. It is a hard life, one that is pressed onto one of our protagonists without his consent, stripping him of his freedom and childhood for a life of hard labor and questioning his faith.
The author spends several chapters with each of the two main characters before switching POVs, which is a refreshing narrative choice. It allows each character's story room to breathe, instead of hopping back and forth incessantly and losing whatever momentum has been built.
One of the villains in this story is a horrifying, manipulative, and abusive priest who is responsible for the training of some of his selected students. Some might think to associate a trope with this kind of teacher/student relationship, but I'll just say that the decisions and ramifications that stem from this plot thread are addressed with grimly realistic consequences.
There's several surprising turns in the back half of the book. Some might be able to predict one or two events in advance, but the way they are handled respects readers in a way that doesn't try to shock, but rather unfold the events and reveal themselves both naturally and logically. There are a couple of major tonal shifts in the story which initially caught me off guard, but the story does an excellent job of answering the lingering questions as to why these events abruptly occur. While the first half of the story is deliberately paced, the back third races toward the finish with unprecedented speed.
The author gets some incredible mileage out of the setting for the novel, which takes place entirely inside an underground mining city, or the lower levels of the ancient temple above it. Some books impress me with immersive world-building, incorporating various histories, cities, wars, magical rules, maps, battle records, and so forth... this book felt incredibly rich and lifelike even though the characters are surrounded by dimly lit rock walls and tunnels for the entirety of the story. An impressive feat.
I would not be surprised if this SPFBO entry ends up being this year's The Grey Bastards. It's a clear front-runner for one of the best of this year's crop that I've read, and also one of my favorites overall of 2017.
8.8 / 10 -- Adam Weller
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