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Valour by John Gwynne
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After the cliffhanger ending of the first book in this epic fantasy series I was keen to learn the fate of the characters I cared about, since most of them had not been left in a comfortable position by the end of Malice, so I was happy to see that Valour started exactly where its predecessor had left off, almost as if this were a new chapter in the story.

What I was not prepared to accept, however, was the leisurely way in which the author placed his pieces on the complicated chessboard of this series: much as the previous volume (and the other Gwynne book I read) the story starts with a deliberate pace that I have now come to recognize as the author's modus operandi, and this kind of pace requires some patience from the readers, a quality I don't possess in great amount, unfortunately, and that in this case was hindered by my eagerness to move forward with the story. This experience taught that with a John Gwynne novel one must be patient, and that such restraint will always be rewarded in the end.

War has come to the Banished Lands: high king Nathair, persuaded that he's the Bright Star, the champion of light who must fight against the encroaching darkness, has launched his plan of conquest, blind to the deviousness of his allies and the harm he's inflicting on the ever-dwindling decent rulers of the land. Young Corban, the true champion of good, is on the run with princess Edana and a few trusty companions, and suffering the double burden of the loss of his father and sister on one side and the awareness of being special on the other, a notion he's not ready to accept. Cywen, Corban's sister who has been left for dead in the assault on Dun Carreg, is taken prisoner by Nathair's war-band, her attempts at escape thwarted time and again, as are her attempts to convince Veradis - Nathair's first sword - of her brother's innocence: Veradis is indeed as blind to outside influence as his king… And last but not least, warrior Maquin (one of my favorite secondary characters in Malice) finds himself prisoner of the Vin Thalun pirates and is forced to set aside his principles and humanity as he's compelled to fight for his life in their slave pits.

These are only the highlights of a very complex story that slowly but surely gains momentum as it expands to encompass an ever-widening playing field and cast of characters: each of them is given room to grow and the chance of offering their point of view to the readers through alternating chapters that are often quite brief, as if to underline both the intricacy of the plot and the scope of the events. One of the points that these characters' journey underscores repeatedly is that the line of demarcation between good and evil is thin and often blurred: the "bad guys" are more often than not mislaid by the true enemies who use their insecurities or their flaws as leverage to accomplish their dark goals, so that the readers can see these people are not inherently evil but more simply misguided; just as the "good guys" find themselves repeatedly forced to be vicious in order to survive, needing to forget the rules of honor and fairness that have been at the root of their nature until then.

As a counterpoint to this element, however, there is a wonderful stress on the feelings of friendship, of belonging to an extended family that does not rely only on ties of blood but rather on the those forged in adversity, which end up being stronger than any blood relationship might be. We see this often - with the most notable example being that of former brigand Camlin, who for the first time in his life perceives this sense of belonging once he discovers he's prepared to give his life for people he once might have preyed upon. It's one of the few rays of hope in what looks like a dire, sometimes hopeless background.

Be they good or evil, invested with a mission or duped into wrongdoing, these characters - all of them - are the real backbone of the story, here even more than in the previous novel because we can see how they have evolved and can perceive where they might be headed; what's more, the addition of new characters adds more layers to the ones we already know, because it's through these interactions that an individual's true nature comes to the fore. And here lies the most difficult hurdle to be overcome by us readers, because one way or another we come to care for these characters, to see them as flesh and blood creatures, and when the author needs to remove them from the playing field it's always a shock, and one that's not always easy to metabolize. Epic fantasy should have prepared us to endure these losses: from the death of poor Boromir to the cruel slaying of Ned Stark, just to name two of the most famous ones, we should know that being one of the "good guys" is no guarantee of survival, and yet every time that happens we feel the same pain of… betrayal and are reminded of the bitter lesson of war, that no one is safe. The only comfort offered by John Gwynne's portrayal of these deaths is that they always seem to fulfill some higher purpose, that we can see how that particular life was not wasted on a whim - it might not be much, but it's enough.

And speaking of war, I noticed how Valour contains an impressive number of battle or duel sequences, from war skirmishes to gladiatorial arena combat: in every instance you can find a precision of detail, a sort of choreography to the action that turns these scenes into quite cinematic portrayals. For someone like me, who usually skips across this kind of description, this is indeed an amazing approach.

Much as Valour might have started somewhat slowly for my tastes, by the end it developed into a breathtaking narrative with higher and higher stakes, and totally unpredictable developments: if Malice laid the ground for the encroaching of evil, and Valour showed the kind of sacrifices required by the battle against it, I wonder what the next book's title - Ruin - will mean in terms of story progress. What I know is that it will be another enthralling journey. ( )
  SpaceandSorcery | Mar 8, 2019 |
Good SciFi or Fantasy must be built on a foundation that is believable otherwise we have no proper frame of reference for interpreting it. This series looks promising at first but not for long. Admittedly part of my frustration is with the book "that could have been". It feels like the author didn't bother researching any medieval culture and just cherry picked the ideas he thought looked interesting from other under-researched authors. Does this matter - you better believe it does. Much of the structure feels very arbitrary as if the author is doing things just because he can, not because there is an actual compelling reason in the story. On the whole it at first appears to be a worthy follow up to the first book - but in the end it shows the weaknesses inherent to both that were hard to detect at the start.

It is rapidly becoming evident that the author assembled a set of components without properly planning how they fit together. The characters are ok but character development is weak. The world appears engaging at first but the pieces don't fit. Things are added because they are cool (minor dragon) and lets not worry about the affect it should have on the rest of the world (love the cold and the heat, the sun and the shade, one type of food as much as another). This complete lack of balance or depth seems to be the major theme. Any task that requires significant skill is treated as if it could be learned in short order and maintained in shorter. No specialization ever has downsides - so lets have our coastal seafarer easily beat our mountain top dweller in the latter's own home turf doesn't cause any ripples. Actions often don't have consequences, philosophy of characters is inconsistent at best, and don't let me get started about the problems with the military.

it is getting a little frustrating that only the bad guys seem to be able to plot and scheme and work together. Worst of all in my opinion is the presentation of the superhero level skill attributed to the pirates which does not match with their dissolute lifestyle (cherry pick the "best" attributes of multiple historical groups and ignore all the downsides that are irrevocably tied to some of those very attributes). The pirates are presented as if hey have no weaknesses - which is absolutely impossible - every area of life affects every other - give a little hear means you MUST take a little there (unless of course you have discovered how to get more than 24 hours out of a day....) ( )
  jason9292 | Aug 22, 2018 |
Valour continues right where Malice left off. I would hate to spoil anything about this series, so I'm going to keep this brief.

I find the writing very functional and every now and then Gwynne's prose feels more like a history book than a work of fiction. The female characters become more important in Valour than they were in Malice, but it feels like that was done deliberately, not because they're important but so the books has female representation. Sadly, I can't connect with a character, when all I think is: I get it, you're the woman.

I'm all in for the lore. I love the premise of this series. I love a good prophecy and on top of that this series has angels and fallen angels, a god-war and an epic scope.

I'm curious to see if the plot will manage to surprise me in the third book because so far I found it mostly predictable. ( )
  Vinjii | Mar 27, 2018 |
Wow. Just wow. This right here is exactly what fantasy should be. There is just so much going on, that once you manage to get who is who straight, you get so incredibly invested in their lives that their losses become painful and their joys become your joys.

There is just so much growth and revelation among the characters in this book that I was on the edge of my seat. The only thing that stopped me from devouring this in just a sitting or two was a medical issue.

I found myself getting so tense and sad in parts that my eyes welled up and I'm pretty sure that my neighbors could hear my heartbeat. The battles were incredible and there was just soooo much more on the line in the book.

The ending climax was the best and had me internally screaming curses and warnings to hurry. The final scene had me in tears and I already find myself needing the third book now. ( )
  Moore31 | Feb 25, 2018 |
Wow. Just wow. This right here is exactly what fantasy should be. There is just so much going on, that once you manage to get who is who straight, you get so incredibly invested in their lives that their losses become painful and their joys become your joys.

There is just so much growth and revelation among the characters in this book that I was on the edge of my seat. The only thing that stopped me from devouring this in just a sitting or two was a medical issue.

I found myself getting so tense and sad in parts that my eyes welled up and I'm pretty sure that my neighbors could hear my heartbeat. The battles were incredible and there was just soooo much more on the line in the book.

The ending climax was the best and had me internally screaming curses and warnings to hurry. The final scene had me in tears and I already find myself needing the third book now. ( )
  Moore31 | Feb 25, 2018 |
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"Corban flees his homeland searching for peace, but he soon discovers that there is no haven in the west as the agents of Rhin and roaming bands of giants hound his every step. Veradis leaves the battleground and rushes to his King's side. But he has witnessed both combat and betrayal and his duty weighs heavily upon him. Maquin seeks only revenge, but pirate slavers and the brutal world of pit-fighting stand in his way. Nathair becomes embroiled in the wars of the west as Queen Rhin marches against King Owain. The need to find the cauldron of the giants drives him on. Sides are chosen and oaths will be fulfilled or broken in a land where hell has broken loose."--Amazon.com.… (more)

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