Malice by John Gwynne

Rating 7.6/10
A thoroughly entertaining new fantasy story.

"That is my prayer, what use is prayer to a God that has abandoned all things..." - Halvor

Gwynne's debut is the foundation of what will arguably be a perplexing but ultimately breathtaking fantasy saga. One that is flowing with age-old and perhaps cliched elements preparing for the ultimate battle. Good vs. Evil. It features a whole range of species such as humans, giants, wolvens, draigs and also incorporates a friendly intellectual talking crow.

A few wise people have envisaged through their extramental powers and knowledge that the ever-present threat of a God war; one that was fabled over 2000 years ago may be very close to fruition.

The mythical race the Ben-Elim revered two Gods. Asroth and Elyon. One of these ascendants has turned his back on humanity and all who dwell within The Banished Lands. It is foretold that both sides will have a champion. One entitled the Black Sun and one known as the Bright Star.

The narrative follows about 7-8 points of view all in third person perspective. What is interesting and I respect Gwynne for this is that, barring one obviously evil character all the main focus characters are good people in this disturbing, dark and deceptive world. Whichever side of the Good vs. Evil foundations they are frequenting we hear it from good hearted people. To the extent where - although both characters are involved throughout the whole book - until the ultimation, we have no idea who is the Black Sun and who is the Bright Star - and I guess even then we can't be 100% sure. From this tactic of the author with writing pleasant point of views, the story starts off quite upbeat and charming with a royal wedding - known in this realm as a "handbounding". The reality is that with the ever present war this vibe does not continue too long.

I would say 50% of this book follows young Corban. A youth from Ardan who is dealing with bullies, family issues and the ever present knowledge that he needs to work hard before his looming manhood challenge; sitting the Long Night where he can prove he is a warrior which is his main ambition. He wants to make everyone proud if possible. It doesn't always appear easy for young Corban with the challenges he faces on this road to ever looming manhood. Well, if he makes it that far. Not a spoiler. Just may end up being a fact in this rotten world.

In this novel - so many of the presented personae are complicated, some are likable and others are intensely mysterious. Characters that stood out most to me, and there are a few which speaks volumes in itself - were Tull, Storm, Nathair, Envis, Cywen, Maquin, Camlin amongst about 47 others. You will get attached and yes; it will hurt.

The world is intricately created incorporating nationalities, races, religions, family ties etc... I mentioned before that some cliches worm their way throughout this book, however; fantasy is my favourite genre so if it isn't broke then why fix it. A cliche of my own!

I do not wish to discuss too much of the actual plot, characterisation or outcomes and trust me- you will thank me because this is a book you don't want to have ruined. If you haven't read this book then - stop reading reviews!!! (After this one of course) Spoilers do lurk so be careful. I was aware of one or two before the conclusion, unfortunately.

Apart from it being a typical fantasy - which isn't really a problem, I do have one criticism. For a published novel by TOR, I noticed a handful of errors. Main character names spelled wrong, missing "-marks from sentences, repeating exactly the same statement a paragraph later when that point; for the progression of the book did not need to be repeated. In the introduction, Gwynne thanks 9 people; excluding an editor for proofreading his manuscript. It is a shame that errors sneaked through. (I know I make spelling mistakes - probably even in this review yet I don't sell these at Waterstones). Spelling errors alas, but still a spellbinding story and I can't wait to start Valour well, probably in about 7 minutes.

The ending was a great culmination of all the threads (or should that be threats?) and it does finish with most events being nicely tied up. No major cliffhangers. A few of my friends said that this book's finale brought tears to their eyes. I will not argue - it is brutal and utterly devastating and unpredictable at some points. It didn't upset me too much following on from reading the heartless deaths in Malazan and also the fact I am a cold hearted psychopath. Unless, it involves animals. I saw a dead cat once and cried. If a character's' pet animal (who you will love) got injured I threatened to throw this and the remaining three books into my fire. And I will. You best think that over Gwynne before you release Wrath, or you with honestly feel my Wrath. Grr.

Oh wow, I reviewed this and didn't mention Games of Thrones. Damn. I just did.
James Tivendale, 8.4/10

The worst thing that can happen to a book is for a good idea to be poorly executed. More and more I’m finding that the publishing industry seems to be letting its guard down on the quality they publish. Like a car that has been cleaned by using spit and a dirty rag – it looks OK at a distance, but the closer you get, the more you see the stains and streaks that would have been taken care of with a bit of polish.

John Gwynne’s debut novel, ‘Malice’, falls into this category of a book that could have done with a bit more editorial polish. The creative germ of an idea is enticing, but the execution lacks the refinement you would expect from a book published in 2014 – which is disappointing, because John Gwynne manages to take what looks like a stereotypical fantasy-trope and build it into something different and new.

Malice starts out distressingly like so many other fantasy novels – boys in their teens thrust into roles of responsibility we can barely comprehend for someone their age: One is a young boy from a village, another is a youngest son – all very typical. However, Gwynne then takes these characters on a journey that does away with the ‘typical’ and puts his own spin on things.

Gone is the ‘suddenness’ of other versions of this story – we are allowed the opportunity to slowly grow with the characters, to see one grow brave and to see the other become unhinged. There is no rush to the story – something for which I was immensely grateful. In this way we experience actual character growth, growth which is shown over a period of time, rather than told to us in repeated info-dumps.

In fact, Malice manages this slow growth so well that the book is hard to put down – despite its editorial lapses. One wonders just how much better this book would have read with even one more edit, to pick out the inconsistencies, grammatical errors, and lazy writing. In this, I place blame on the editorial process and not the author. A writer myself, I understand how difficult it is to step away from your own creative work and critically judge where you have gone awry. John Gwynne has crafted a beautiful tale, which takes fantasy tropes we have come to love and hate in equal measure, and build upon them something new and entertaining. Sadly, the editorial attention paid to that work has let him down, somewhat.

The characters we meet and interact with, however, redeem this story beyond warning you away. The world and its slowly-revealing horrors are utterly fascinating, and I cannot wait until I am able to return to the world Gwynne has created. Weaved in and around the story of these young people are tropes I love, and to experience them in a new way is downright enjoyable. Add to that the contrasting views of right and wrong, so wonderfully explored through the eyes of innocent and culpable characters alike, and you have what could be a one of the most refreshing new entrants onto the fantasy scene in quite a while.

While I may harp on about editorial oversights in John Gwynne’s Malice, I still recommend the book to any who like a good read. You may in fact find no fault at all with the writing, and you will therefore enjoy a thoroughly entertaining new fantasy story. Nevertheless, this book is definitely worth the entry price, if for no other reason than to see if the author grows in his writing with the oncoming sequel, ‘Valour’.
Joshua S Hill, 6/10

I found my reading of Malice to be a little happier than that experienced by Josh. I do however agree with a lot of the positive elements he mentioned and I was similarly impressed by how Gwynne managed to take much that is stereotypical or derivative in the fantasy genre and breath new life into it.

The reason I am so willing and happy to forgive any perceived weaknesses (in my opinion) is because I found the book just so damn easy – and enjoyable - to read. It is by no means a small book, and at 640 pages big even by epic fantasy standards, but I flew through the pages and before I realised I was nearing it, the end was reached. I found it was admirable in its ambition and I was especially impressed with its style as it provided me with an immersive reading experience reminiscent to those that David Gemmell, Raymond E Feist, George R. R. Martin and - of course - J. R. R. Tolkien provided me with over the course of the last three decades. And to those authors and Gwynne I will always be grateful.

I did at times find events a little unlikely, the use of deus-ex-machina jarred on a couple of occasions and a few of the major characters merged into one, leaving me finding it a little difficulty remembering who exactly each one was, where they were from, who their King was and what role in the story they were playing - but that is really all that I can say that is negative.

It is the book’s structure that is so reminiscent of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire as all chapters are titled and feature the story from a major character’s point-of-view. The book was definitely Gemmell- and Tolkien-inspired but it was Raymond E. Feist’s Magician that I was most put in mind of while I read it, and again, all the above are good things. As the story progresses these separate threads converge into a story that is very rich, involving, and one where I never knew exactly what was coming as the plot continued to weave and flow in unexpected directions.

The biggest compliment I can pay is to mention that the day after I finished Malice I picked up Valour, the second book in the series, and began to read it. And as I know from experience with trilogies once the world, character and story building has been done by the first installment the second book can really fly as the reader is now so comfortable with the fantasy world and those that inhabit it.

I would happily recommend Malice to people like me – those who a) love a good fantasy story and b) grew up loving authors like Eddings, Feist, Gemmell and Tolkien.

PS. Book two, Valour, has begun really well…
Floresiensis, 8.5/10

This Malice book review was written by and Joshua S Hill and Floresiensis

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