Series: Of Blood and Bone #1
on January 11th 2018
Genres: Epic, Fantasy
A few days ago I finished A Time of Dread by John Gwynne, and I loved it so much that it made my ‘best of’ list for 2017. This is an author whose previous series, The Faithful and the Fallen, enjoys glowing reviews and yet for some reason I’ve never got round to reading them. I genuinely don’t know why that is and having now read A Time of Dread my only dilemma is whether I now go back and start with Malice? Anyway, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition so lets get on with a review and a bit of waxing lyrical about why you need this book in your life.
The long and the short of it – this book is epic – it has depth to the characters, it has scope to the story and it has meat on the bones in terms of world building. I admit I hesitate to use the word epic – I don’t know why but it feels overused somehow and even dated in these days of grimdark so I’ll just say that this is a damn fine book. The characters are amazing and the tension that Gwynne creates positively grows into a monster that has you holding your breath anxiously.
So, to the story. Told from a number of perspectives this is basically a tale of good vs evil. Of course it’s not quite as simple as that but bear with me. Many years ago the Kadoshim, demons of the Otherworld, broke free from their spirit world to wreak havoc upon mankind. Thankfully their enemy, the Ben-Elim, warrior angels, followed them into the Banished Lands, a fierce battle ensued but an alliance between the angels, giants and men left the Kadoshim out numbered, their Lord was encased in iron and they retreated to the shadows to regroup. So, history out of the way, the story really starts at this point. The Kadoshim are growing in strength and they’re making plans and none of those plans involve humans surviving.
Time has a way of making people forget and become complacent. They no longer remember the lessons that the war taught them and indeed some have even begun to doubt that such evil exists. Eventually the Kadoshim begin to feel like a long and distant memory at best or a child’s tale at worst. During this period of peace the Ben-Elim have spread their rule through the lands, encroaching upon other borders. Not everyone is happy living under their rule and this is where the lines between good and bad become blurred. The Ben-Elim may be angels but they are certainly not perfect. They’re arrogant. They have a way of demanding rather than asking which in my mind makes the whole idea of the alliance a bit unbalanced. They (or at least some of them) can be totally unwavering and a bit puritanical. On top of that – they don’t all agree with each other completely. Now, no doubt the Ben-Elim would defend their actions by saying they’re defending everyone and risking their own lives in the process but it also feels that in doing so they’re setting themselves up as the ruling authority in the land, unquestioned and unapproachable. They’ve trained and created their own army of humans (the White-Wings) and indeed have decided that a tithe will be required in future in order to sustain numbers. I guess it begs the question of when does protection become something more akin to rule. The peace that remains is tentative. Factions have started to form and with unknown entities waiting in the shadows, planning their moment to strike its really only a matter of time before hell in a handcart comes looking for trouble.
The story is told from four points of view. This is a method of storytelling that I particularly enjoy. I like experiencing the world from different eyes, minds and places and the four characters that Gwynne creates are easy to like making the switch between chapters all that more enjoyable.
Riv is a young woman who has always lived within the walls of Drassil, the fort of the Ben-Elim. She trains with almost a religious fervour to become a White-Wing, like her mother and sister before her. Riv shows plenty of potential as a warrior but the temper that she is unable to keep in check is her worst enemy. Her chapters allow us a birds eye view of life in Drassil and a look at how the Ben-Elim and the humans get along. These are intriguing sections in themselves. The people at Drassil are well aware of the Kadoshim and the threat they pose to their way of life and this is obvious in the way they live and train. Of course not everything at Drassil is perfect as soon becomes apparent.
Bleda was taken from his home to become a ward of the Ben-Elim following an outbreak of war and to act as surety of good behaviour by his people. He lives within the fort at Drassil and trains with the other potential white wings. Bleda is a good character to read about. He misses his home, even after living away for a few years, he doesn’t fit in at Drassil and at first it feels like he simply bides his time. The Ben-Elim have plans for Bleda that they believe will help keep the peace. Bleda is a strong character, he takes the right course of action even when it appears to be helping people that he doesn’t really like.
Sig is one of the giants. I love her character. She’s gutsy and just plain likeable. The giants were part of the original alliance and are also very aware of the Kadoshim. They patrol the borders protecting people from a threat that they’re not really even aware of. The giants live at Dun Seren. Their lives feel completely different to the Ben-Elim and if I was going to choose a place to live in this world it would be with them. They work and train hard, they’re tough, but they enjoy life. The giants ride on bears and have crows that not only talk but display intelligence and loyalty. Sig is probably my favourite character to be honest. She’s just a character that you warm to really quickly and then spend a good deal of time being worried about because she’s always throwing herself into danger.
Finally we have Keld. He and his father Olin live outside of the Ben-Elim’s lands. They make an existence as trappers which means they live in the wild for a good portion of the time. They have a fantastic bond and Keld’s chapters make for really entertaining reading. When they return to their homestead changes are clear. Their little town has started to develop, people are leaving the Banished Lands to avoid living under the Ben-Elim’s rule and unfortunately this brings something of an unsavoury element into their lives. The place in which they live has a lawless and almost wild west feel. Keld and his father are governed by their own code of right and wrong and Keld has been brought up with a strict moral code but more than that he’s the sort of character that would always help someone in need. I really enjoyed the chapters where they’re in the wilds surviving on their instincts.
There are plenty of other characters but the four main POV perspectives help to keep a grip on them all and stop the read from becoming a people puzzle.
In terms of the writing. Well, it’s very impressive. I have to say that Gwynne’s ability to write a vivid and exciting scene, be that a bear chase, a fist fight or a battle is absolutely excellent. I don’t think I’ve read such dramatic scenes before that are quite so easy to picture. He writes with practiced confidence and over the course of the early chapters shows the strength of will to take his time setting up the people and the place and this really pays off. This is a strong world, full of intrigue, history and varied races. Clearly Gwynne has already written a very popular series before and whilst I’m not in a position to compare the two I can’t help thinking that his past experience shines through here.
I don’t have any criticisms at all. I think that there is one particular thread that is clearly building to a final reveal and, yes, it was easy to guess what was going to happen with that storyline. But, I imagine that was the author’s intention to be honest. And, not a criticism, but this book doesn’t step into the realms of grim dark as we’ve come to know it. Of course there are battles and inevitably bloodshed but A Time of Dread manages to have an old school feel at the same time as breathing new life into the realms of swords and sorcery.
If it isn’t clear already, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and can’t wait for No.2. No pressure at all Mr Gwynne.