Malice is a debut novel from John Gwynne that travels a more traditional path than many novels in recent years. It’s a debut fantasy that reminds me very much of lazy summer days as a teen barricaded in my parent’s air conditioned home while pouring over the latest dictionary sized fantasy novel. Malice, in a way similar to Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, is a novel that seems written to bridge the gap between teens and adults. As a result Malice’s prose walks a middle ground as it tries to appeal to both teens and adults. Much of Malice is about set up as Gwynne details the signs and portents of a world teetering on the edge of a great (and mysterious) conflict. Ancient stone alters bleed and strange creatures stir in the dark places of the world. It actually takes a bit of time before a prophecy is revealed predicting an ancient struggle between the force of light, lead by the Bright Star, and the forces of darkness, lead by the Black Sun. Thrown into the mix of two diametrically opposed prophesied individuals are a number of magical objects, crafted in ancient times, which will be sought after by the Dark Sun and his forces.
The novel’s main protagonist is the teen Corban who suffers all the indignities of young adult life; primarily bullies and a deep longing to begin combat training alongside the older teens of his community in . Corban is a traditional fantasy hero archetype seen in countless fantasy series before: a humble youth from a commoner family with a noble heart and burgeoning skill at arms. It also isn’t long before Corban’s demonstrates that he is also somehow connected to something else, seen during Malice as strange dreams and visions, though Gwynne holds off on fully explaining that mystery.
On the other hand Gwynne offers the ambitious Prince Naithar as the more morally complex counterpoint to the obviously heroic Corban. Naithar is an interesting figure a natural leader but one whose vision is very much black and white; you are either with him or against him. Naithar puts into practice the notion that every villain is the hero of their own story. Even knowing that Naithar is being propped up as the bad guy there is still something compelling about him, a feeling that his ambitions and a genuine desire to do something great with his life is being manipulated. Naithar is guarded by Veradis, a fiercely loyal warrior who is both honest and trustworthy. Loyal to the Prince, his perspective makes watching Naithar’s slide into darkness more interesting.
The other “main” character in Malice is Kastell a warrior whose family was killed long ago. Kastell is accompanied by his bondsman Maquin and the two are searching for somewhere they belong. Kastell and Maquin could easily be the stars of their own novel and I found myself enjoying their chapters the best. There is a sort of wandering warrior vibe and following Kastell and Maquin on their adventures was something I definitely wanted to see more of. However, of the primary narrative viewpoints in the novel Kastell’s seem to be the least connected to the main story. Veradis, as Naithar’s right hand, offers us insight into Naithar’s characters. Corban, as the novels heroic lead, fits into things nicely. However, Kastell doesn’t quite fit and the roll he has to play in the greater story unfolding in Malice isn’t quite as clear as the rest.
Malice has a very traditional feel and eschews the “grim and gritty” tone that marks much of today’s “adult” oriented fantasy. As a result the novel does tend feel a bit more juvenile, particularly given that the hero is young teenager himself. The novel has an uneven opening and I found that Corban’s perspective, while both familiar and comfortable, was the least interesting of the novel. Indeed, Malice improves considerably as the focus expands to include other characters across the landscape. Regardless of this initial stumbling Malice is a strong debut and despite the somewhat familiar ground Gwynne has done an excellent job of piquing my interest in discovering where this story goes next.