Book Review: Malice – John Gwynne

Book Review - Malice - John Gwynne

 

My rating: 4 dragons

Overview

Most books start strong, waver a little in the middle, then build to an exciting finale. Malice was not that for me. I started off fairly intrigued but quickly became overwhelmed with the vast cast of characters and sprawling world – even until the final few pages, I still flicked back to the map to work out whether a place name was a country or castle or where the locale was. This is a book I should have read with a notebook to my side to keep track of everything and everyone, as well as to whose sides they belonged. Either that or an Excel spreadsheet!

Malice found its stride in the middle for me, and I enjoyed it most then, but I felt the ending to be weaker than the second third of the book, which I know is unusual. Perhaps by that point, there were so many double crossings and betrayals and deaths that I was less bothered by it?

But that is not a failing of the book. Epic fantasy commands the complex – layers of plots and characters and events and threads coming together. It’s one of my favourite things about the genre, and Malice didn’t disappoint. There is A LOT going on. When you couple that with magic “glamour,” deception, and people switching sides, then you need to be awake and pay attention, or you’ll get lost.

Malice really pushes the “characters” in character-driven story. There are more than a handful of them.

Of the cast, we have our “farm boy” trope – though he is a blacksmith’s son – called Corban, along with his sister Cywen. There is Nathair, heir to the High King, and Veradis, who is his trusted ally (friend) and first sword. Camlin is a thieving, fighting woodsman who lives deep in the forest and raids fortresses. Evnis is the typical villain, and through the prologue we understand what he wants, but it doesn’t seem overly clear how he’ll obtain them. Kastell was the final character with POV chapters – he was another warrior who fell mostly to the background for me.

There is a huge cast of side characters too; my favourites were Gar (the stablemaster), Brina (a healer), and her crow, Craf, and Corben and Cywen’s dad, Thannon, had some lovely moments, too. Calidus and Alcyon are side characters aligned with Nathair and Veradis, who also were very intriguing – mostly because they are part of two different races considered enemies of the people in the main narrative (a Vin Thalun and Giant, respectively).

Most of the other side characters, Kings and Queens and their sons and daughters and brothers, all mostly rolled into one, which is where a notebook would help!

Other than characters, Malice is all about battles, fighting, techniques, and a good deal of bloodshed. Thankfully it doesn’t stray into grimdark territory, though it has its share of monsters, but overall even those with sensitive stomachs will be fine with his novel.

There is prophecy and ancient treasures, gods and their subjects (both good and bad), and it is epic on a scale parallel to A Song of Ice and Fire.

 

Things I loved

Veradis and Camlin. Of all the POV characters, these two were my favourite, and I connected quickly with Veradis more than any of the others. His story felt very realistic and I empathised with many of his struggles. I saw his character begin to change as the book developed and I felt so many emotions as he experienced some difficult choices.

Camlin I enjoyed because he felt much more morally grey than the more clear black and white characters elsewhere. He did arguably “bad” things, but had his own code, and worked for himself rather than being swayed by the various Kings and chiefs of the Banished Lands. I felt he was a refreshing change to the other characters and really enjoyed reading about him, though he only had a few chapters.

The magic. There wasn’t a huge amount of it, but what was included was wonderful. I loved shape shifting and glamour, and I love the idea of the seven treasures. I’m sure we’ll discover more about them and their power in the remaining books of the series.

“Earth power” was mentioned and used by several characters, from creating mist (and making it disappear), to turning land into a bog of quicksand. I wonder whether there are more powers to complement this, or if there is more to the earth power than we learn in the first book. Either way, I love it and cannot wait to find out more.

 

Things I didn’t like

Most of my “dislikes” or things that irked me a little, were to do with the writing more than the plot or characters. Chief among which were many, many, many repetitions:

Everyone seems to sweat. A lot.

There are countless instances of big, brawly men with knotted muscles (or thick chords of muscle) and beards, along with several mentions of their warrior braids. We get it. They’re warriors. Any man who isn’t specifically called a King / Prince / blacksmith / woodsman / stablemaster, assume is a warrior!

There’s lots of battles and fighting throughout the book. Lots of it. There’s always a bit of an intro…”and then everything turned to chaos / and then everything went mad…” Which I found distracting because it happened with the majority of conflict involving more than a handful of people.

I found a lot of the fighting – the duels in particular – to be quite dry in how they were written. X slashed, and Y turned, impossibly fast, blocking and bringing his sword down in an arc, but X lunged… Very much a case of, “this happened and then that happened and then this happened,” and we’re told to be impressed because others watching are impressed or that they were doing it quickly because that’s what other people saw. The prose overall, not just in these scenes although it was more apparent in these scenes, felt very wooden.

Corban, also, irritated me for a long while. It took until about 500 pages for him to warm to me, though I suspect that’s my impatience more than a flaw in his character!

 

Final thoughts

For 80% of the book, I was convinced it’d be a five star/dragon read. But in the end, the cons slightly grew, and I’ve settled on four stars. I’m very excited to start reading book two in the series, Valour, and no doubt the remaining books in the quartet – Ruin and Wrath – all which I own, so can get stuck in straightaway.

It feels very much a vast tapestry that is being woven, and we’re just seeing the far ends of the threads. I have a suspicion it’ll improve in the subsequent books, after all, there is much more to the prophecy than just the beginning, and it feels like the key characters are only starting to be maneuvered into position.

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