Note and Spoiler Warning: I received an advance copy of A Time of Dread via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. Additionally, as this book follows on from the events of the Faithful and The Fallen quartet (which I have not read), I cannot guarantee that this review is free of spoilers for the Faithful and The Fallen series. In fact, I’m pretty sure that it contains a bunch of such spoilers, so please don’t read on if you intend to read those books.
About the Novel
The Ben-Elim, a race of warrior angels, once vanquished a mighty demon horde. Now they rule the Banished lands. But their dominion is brutally enforced and their ancient enemy may not be as crushed as they thought.
In the snowbound north, Drem, a trapper, finds mutilated corpses in the forests – a sign of demonic black magic.In the south, Riv, a young, tempestuous soldier, discovers a deadly rift within the Ben-Elim themselves.
Two individuals with two world-changing secrets. But where will they lead? And what role will Drem and Riv play in the Banished Land’s fate? Difficult choices need to be made.
In the shadows, dark forces are gathering, waiting for their time to rise. . .
A Time of Dread was my first John Gwynne book, and I’m starting to wonder if that was a mistake.
Now, that’s a bit of an ambiguous statement. Do I mean that Dread was so good that I’m wishing I’d picked up his novels sooner, or do I mean that Dread doesn’t seem to be the best starting point?
Honestly? It’s a bit of both.
A Time of Dread is a good story, and it’s paced a bit like a barrel rolling down a hill. It’s slow to get started, requiring some patience and a little bit of a push. Then it begins to move, slowly and perhaps even ponderously approaching the slope. But then it really gets going. It races down the hill, always gaining speed. It hits a rock. It flies into the air. It crashes back down. It rolls on, hitting more rocks and throwing up dirt and grass until it crashes into the wall at the bottom of the hill and bursts apart in a stunning, splintery finale.
But the book does have its problems, and I couldn’t help but feeling that one of them was me.
As I said, this is my first John Gwynne novel, and it’s one that happens to follow on from the events of his previous series – The Faithful and The Fallen. As a result, there was always a sense that I was missing something. These characters here, are they making a reference to a previous book? This little piece of in-world history, is this something I should already be familiar with? There were a number of scenes that felt like they should have elicited an emotional response from me, but instead fell a little flat. Maybe if I’d had a pre-existing connection to this world and its history then it would have been a different story. Maybe not. Either way, these questions hovered around my brain for most of the novel.
We’re told fairly quickly that over a hundred years have passed since some event known as “The Day of Wrath”. A quick google tells you that “Wrath” is the name of the final book in the Faithful and Fallen series, so it’s pretty clear that we’re referring to the events that have occured in previous books.
We meet the Ben-Elim straight from the start. These are pseudo-angelic warrior folks with white feathery wings, and they are the protectors of a large area known as the Banished Lands and all the people within it. What are they protecting these people from? That would be the Kadoshim, who are pseudo-demonic warrior folks with black leathery wings. The Ben-Elim apparently “vanquished” the Kadoshim years previously, but a few of them are still skulking around.
We hear some rumours that the Kadoshim are gathering their forces in secret, and are planning something big. And this is fantasy, where false rumours don’t actually exist. So, y’know…
The Bem-Elim seem to be rather obsessive over their status as protectors, and this presents the other source of conflict in the story. Should two opposing groups of people in their lands come to war, as happens in the opening chapter, the Ben-Elim will intervene with violence of their own in order to enforce “peace”. This obviously breeds ill-feeling towards the leaders of the Bem-Elim, which only grows as they start to enforce stricter and harsher laws.
That’s pretty much a summary of the overarching plot, without going into the individual character arcs. The dark side is rising, and the question is whether the light can stop squabbling amongst themselves for long enough to deal with it.
This was very much a “setting the stage” novel, introducing the characters, and the world as it is now. The plot is there, and there is some amount of action, but you get the feeling that things will really kick into gear in following books.
Plot Score: 3.5/5
Gwynne’s prose is fairly descriptive, and he has what I like to describe as a “noticeable” writing style. It’s distinct enough that you would feel confident in picking it out of a line-up, and it’s pretty well-polished. I did notice that it took me a few minutes before I could look past the prose and into the story, meaning that it wasn’t suitable for one-chapter-at-a-time popcorn reading, but I’d breeze through the pages if I’d been reading it for any length of time.
The action scenes though… those are what John Gwynne was born to write. I don’t know if I’d put him above Abercrombie as far as very visual and engaging action scenes go, but he’s close. Gwynne’s battles feel more realistic. You won’t find someone cutting down 100 soldiers in a scrap. Instead, if you find a POV character faced up against 3 tavern brawlers, you know there’s a decent chance that they’re gonna get their ass kicked (depending on the character!).
Prose Score: 4/5
There are four main POV characters in A Time of Dread, and it takes a little while to get to know each of them.
There’s Bleda, who is taken from his clan by the Ben-Elim as punishment for a war fought with another clan. Bleda is a quiet, competent sort, who struggles to hide his emotions behind what his clan call “the cold face”.
Sometimes the effort to keep that control is so exhausting, the sense of failure at just the slightest slip crushing.
There’s Riv, who is training to be part of the Ben-Elim’s human warrior companions, the White Wings. Riv is extremely competent in almost all forms of combat, but has a temper that is prone to flaring at the slightest provocation.
There’s Sig, who looks like she may have been involved in the previous novels, and is a giantess and a capable warrior of some renown. She is part of an Order that exists to fight against the Kadoshim, but is completely separate from the Ben-Elim.
Lastly, there’s Drem. He’s the quiet son of a tanner, who is prone to very logical bouts of thinking. Another character actually describes him very well:
There seemed to be no falsity to him, no bluster or hidden ways. He spoke the truth as he saw it and displayed very little bravado.
As a whole they’re a very likable bunch of characters, and I’d have trouble picking any favourites beyond Drem.
With so many morally-questionable main characters nowadays, being in the head of such a nice kid is almost a breath of fresh air. I particularly enjoyed that we got to witness Drem’s relationship with his father, and in fact the scenes with Drem and his dad rate amongst the best in the book for me. Too often fantasy authors kill off the parents so we can have an orphaned main character.
We do get some good character moments that draw out the emotions, but again, this book feels like it’s just setting the stage for things to come.
Character Score: 4/5
Despite my earlier complaints over the shadow cast by the previous series, it does lend to worldbuilding that seems a bit more real than most. There’s a certainty about the way that the history of the world is told, and yet there’s still a slight air of mystery that partially makes up for my lack of emotional connection to these previous characters.
The concept that a race of divine angelic beings operating as leaders can be a source of conflict is an interesting one, and it’s explored well within the context of the novel. I’m not too keen on the idea of a race of evil beings that wants to take over the world just because, but I think that Gwynne managed to make it work through the contrast between Ben-Elim and Kadoshim.
The scope of the novel is very small and contained, and so you don’t get much of that sense of wonder that is common with epic fantasy. However, this does mean that you get to focus on the characters a bit more.
In terms of stuff, there’s a couple of warrior schools, a tanning/trapping village, a mining village, and a forest. That’s pretty much all you see in this book, but it suits the story, and there are some cool fantasy creatures like giant bears, wolves, and bats.
Setting Score: 4.25/5
This was a difficult review to write.
Overall, I liked A Time of Dread, and would class it as a good book, but not necessarily a great one. Had I read the previous series, then I’m fairly sure that I’d be a lot more positive about A Time of Dread than I have been, but too often I was left feeling like I was missing a trick.
I’ve read a fair few overwhelmingly positive reviews for Dread in the past few days, with the common theme being that each of those reviewers/bloggers had read The Faithful and The Fallen first. This suggests that A Time of Dread may not be the best starting point if you’re looking to pick John Gwynne up for the first time, but I couldn’t say that for certain without seeing more reviews from other first-timers.
A Time of Dread is good enough that I want to read on… but I’m now in the strange position of wondering whether to wait for future books, or go back and read those that came before.