Warning: This review contains spoilers for The Faithful and the Fallen series.
“The Ben-Elim, a fierce race of warrior-angels, burst into the Banished Lands over a hundred and thirty years ago. They were in pursuit of their eternal enemy, the Kadoshim demon-horde. On that day a great battle was fought, the Ben-Elim and Kadoshim joined by allies from the races of both men and giants, and a great victory was won.
Now much of the Banished Lands is ruled by the Ben-Elim, who have made this world their home, extending their influence and power as they swallow ancient kingdoms into the protective grasp of their ever-extending borders. But peace is fragile within the realm and the Kadoshim that remain are now amassing on the edges of the empire….
Threats long in the shadows are about to strike.”
I understand that A Time of Dread takes place around a century after the events of The Faithful and the Fallen, however I received it as an ARC via Netgalley and wasn’t familiar with Gwynne’s previous work. That’s set to change, because when I was about halfway through I ordered the box set based on the strength of this novel. While it was slow to establish itself and there was a lot to absorb early on (again, in part due to my not having read the previous work), I found myself absolutely riveted throughout. The bits and snatches of history that I learned were tantalizing rather than irritating or overly cryptic, so while I expect you’ll get more out of it if you had read the previous series, it’s definitely not necessary for you to enjoy this one.
It’s a multi-PoV story, the main conflict being between the Ben-Elim and the Kadoshim. On the surface it would appear fairly black and white – the Kadoshim were released into this world from another dimension, gargoyle-like creatures who wrought terror and havoc until the angelic Ben-Elim followed and took a holy oath to protect humanity. That’s how history tells it, anyway. But history is written by the victors, and the Ben-Elim are not the benevolent force that they portray themselves to be. In reality they’re more like fascist dictators, demanding tithes of young warriors from the various tribes and kingdoms of the world for their holy war, slowly erasing their cultures as they bring them into the fold. All this with a side of world-policing, zealotry and racial purity.
Early in the story it seems that the Kadoshim are close to extinction and the last stragglers are being hunted down, but we soon begin to see increasingly disturbing indications that this is not the case. Gruesome sacrifices are discovered, and we see signs that the Kadoshim are gathering cultists and are on the move. They have sinister plans, and we as the audience share the unsettling position of the characters not knowing what they are. The politics are interestingly and realistically written, and the various PoV characters each have their own feelings about it and make some valid points from their perspective. Mentions of characters from the previous novels obviously didn’t have quite the emotional effect on me that I think Gwynne intended, but I suspect that they landed perfectly for those who have read them.
We also have some heroes to root for. The main characters are a joy to read, in particular the father-son relationship of Olin and Drem. They have a healthy, loving relationship based on mutual trust and respect, which I found quite touching – Olin’s outlook on life, his fierce love for his son and his pragmatic ways were wonderful. Drem is the kind and empathetic young man who you would expect to result from such a parent. Sig is another standout character, a Giant who I understand had a minor role in the previous series, she’s a fearsome warrior who exudes wisdom and practicality. Bleda is a clever, brave young ward/prisoner snatched from his kingdom by the Ben-Elim to keep his people from warring. Even Rab, an intelligent and sweet natured crow managed to make a little nest in my heart. All of the characters are extremely compelling and I found myself heavily invested in each of them as the story unfolded.
For some, the pacing of the first half will be too slow, requiring the reader to do some work before they are rewarded. Gwynne is setting up a large and intricate tale and it required a slow buildup – however, once you hit the 50% mark it ramps up like crazy and continues to accelerate right to the end. Once you hit this mark it’s incredibly difficult to put down. The action scenes are sublime, and fans of gore and violence will find their bloodlust well and truly sated, in a believable way – while there are some remarkable warrior fighters in this world, being outnumbered actually means something here.
For me, this novel scratched the same itch as The Liveship Traders and A Song of Ice and Fire, both of which have excellent characterizations, grey morality, political intrigue, jaw dropping reveals, poignant and upsetting deaths, and enemies you’ll love to hate. That makes this one of my favorites of the year so far and an easy 5 stars.
My thanks to Netgalley and Orbit for the ARC of A Time of Dread!
- Reviewed on r/Fantasy
- Published in 2018
- Mountain Setting
- Fewer than 2500 GR Ratings (as of 4/18)