Malice, the first book in The Faitful and the Fallen series was an entertaining debut to a new series. Valor picks up mere moments after the last novel as Corban, Edana, and the handful who escaped the taking of Dun Carreg make their getaway. As in Malice, Gwynne walks a nice middle ground with his prose. There is a darkness to Valor, with the odds stacked against the heroes and with the people (at least some of them) firmly on the “villainous” side of things not necessary villains themselves. There is violence in the novel but nothing over-the-top though Valor delves a bit further into murky waters when it comes to sexuality; a fact I’ll touch on later. By and large this is an excellent continuation of the series managing a brisk pace while simultaneously deepening the lore of the world that Gwynne has created.
To an extant Valor is also a novel that is hampered by its brisk pacing. I’m not sure if this is a function of copy editing or not but the short chapters which take place from an individual perspective often feel too short. There are enough character points of view in the novel that I never really felt like we spent long enough with any single perspective to really get a handle on it. I would definitely like to see more depth rather than breadth when it comes to characters and Gwynne definitely has fertile ground to work with as many of the main characters are vibrant and multidimensional; not to mention the fact that spending longer with each individual would help deepen the impact of some of the more intensely emotional arcs that many of the characters experience. The brief chapters aren’t enough to ruin the novel but it turns what could be a great novel into one that is “merely” good.
As in Malice, Nathair is the avatar of the main villain though in a clever twist this is a fact that is hidden from him; he believes himself the hero. He is surrounded by several characters who are in-the-know and who carefully manipulate his action towards their desired end goals. Nathairs principle shieldman Veradis is one of Valor’s more interesting characters. Noble and honest Veradis genuinely cares about Nathair but is growing increasingly troubled with the actions of his friend and King. Gwynne complicates things further by introducing a little potential romance in Veradis’ life; his attachment to a particular character will likely look to put further strain on his relationship to Nathair and the advisors who are manipulating his actions. Gwynne further drops hints that the giant Alcyon who serves the decidedly evil advisor Calidus might not exactly be as willing as he first appear. The nature of Alcyon’s loyalty to Calidus is brought to light indirectly though the character of Fidele.
Fidele, King Nathair’s mother, offers the most potentially troublesome section of the story. Fidele is left as regent of her son’s kingdom and it’s there she struggles with her son’s alliance with Lykos and the Vin Thalem (essentially a nation of pirates, and not the fun kind). She takes issue with their fighting pits and the long and bloody history the Vin Thalem raiders have with some of her sons Barons. She butts heads with Lykos and, after he is summoned to aid some of Nathair’s other allies, takes matters into her own hands by breaking up some of the fighting pits and discovering, or at least brushing up against the notion that her son might not be the prophesized hero she thought. All this see Lykos returning to Fidele with a magic stone that essentially enslaves her to his will. We already knew Lykos was sort of a bastard but it is at that moment when his darkest characteristics show. Gwynne liberally uses the fade to black but it is definitely a dark and painful scene to witness. Fidele’s enslavement seems a byproduct of Nathair’s advisors’ and allies’ need to maintain the illusion that he is the Bright Star. That Nathair still seems blissfully unaware of what he is remains one of the most fascinating aspects of the series.
John Gwynne’s The Faithful and the Fallen is an excellent fantasy series that takes some traditional tropes and plays with them in interesting ways. As I’ve noted I’m particularly intrigued by Gwynne’s play on the Chosen One idea; the manipulation of Nathair in particular but also Corban’s unwillingness to play his part as a Chosen One. The introduction of Ben-Elim, mentioned in Malice but seen more fully in Valor walks an interesting line between Tolkein’s Valar and Maiar and a more direct correlation to Judeo-Christian mythology. Malice kicks the story into high gear with the brief chapters pushing the pace. While I often found myself wishing that Gwynne would slow down and linger on the world a bit more Malice remains an excellent story, with well-drawn characters whose fates I legitimately care about. I’m looking forward to seeing where Gwynne takes things in the third book, Ruin.