4.5 stars, rounded up. (Half-star taken off for a slow start. But man, did that ever change.)
Move over, Martin, because Gwynne is here to steal yo’ girl.
The A Game of Thrones comparisons here are completely understandable. As in Martin’s series, there is a varied cast of characters from whose perspectives we witness this story unfold. There is no time travel here, no resurrection for those who die. Death is final, and it is an equal opportunity reaper, not caring how good or bad a person is, how likable, or how important. As with Martin’s work, no one is truly safe here.
However, Gwynne has already surpassed Martin in my mind, even though I’ve thus far only read this, Gwynne’s first novel. (Side note: I do really like A Song of Ice and Fire. This is in no way me dissing Martin. So don’t yell at me.) Martin is a king of backstory and plot twists, but Gywnne was far more successful in crafting characters that I care about. They aren’t just well polished pieces on a chess board; they breathe. The love and are loved and fight and mourn and laugh and rage. These people are as real as ink and page can produce. Their physical appearances aren’t touched on much, but I was actually okay with that. The characters took on the features of people in my life who shared their personality traits, causing me to care even more about their well being.
I also really appreciated Gywnne’s choice of setting. The Banished Lands weren’t overwhelmingly large, and I enjoyed the smaller scope of the story because of decision. The effects of disagreements between kingdoms was more immediately felt than in a larger fictional land like Westeros. And the Scottish feel of the setting, of the society, of the names, was wonderful. It gave a weight to the story that some fantasy series that focus more on unique setting and societal norms tends to lack, in my opinion. The many kings of small neighboring kingdoms, the importance of and methods of warring, the names of both places and people, all whispered of Scotland as I read, but with enough differences to plant this solidly in the fantasy genre. As far as I know, there aren’t actually giants or wyrms or saber-toothed wolves in Scotland.
Something else than made an impression on me was the mythos of the Banished Lands. The creation myth, beginning with the God-War. Asroth, Elyon’s beloved first-created and captain of the Ben-Elim, sowed seeds of discord and split the heavenly host. When Asroth was defeated, he turned his hatred on Elyon’s new creation: man. He wreaked havoc and Elyon, in his rage, almost destroyed the world. The He realized what He had done and almost done, He grieved. In the aftermath, Elyon vanished, turning His back on all creation to mourn. The Ben-Elim still seek to protect it, out of love for their Creator, while their fallen brethren still work toward destruction. The Judeo-Christian influence here is overwhelming, and I loved contemplating the theology here. The parallels are fantastic; Elyon is even a Hebrew name for God, meaning “Most High.” I don’t believe that He has abandoned us, as I’ve felt His presence in my life, but I understand how His disappearance works better for the story Gwynne is telling here. The Bright Star/Black Sun prophecy was also a big draw for me, the Bright Star as savior and the Black Sun as antichrist. The idea of a Chosen One is a trope as old as storytelling itself, but it was deftly handled here, and gave me all kinds of theological and philosophical goodies to chew on as I read.
One other thing Gywnne did incredibly well was present a wide variety of relationships. We were given fantastic friendships, mortal enemies, beautifully close families, and their dysfunctional counterparts. We see kings interact with subjects, warriors interact with their leaders and each other, and mentors training younger generations. And best of all, we see some incredible kinship between man and beast. The animals in this book had so much personality, and their relationships with their humans was beautiful to behold. Family was so important in this story, whether that family was formed by blood or bond, and some of these animals were truly part of an amazing family.
I’ve read some truly stunning debut novels in the past, but the best of them are standalones, and sometimes it’s many years before the author puts out another book. If ever. And often that next book is a letdown after the masterpiece that was their first book. But rarely have I read a debut as fantastic as this one that was the first in a series. A series that I have it on good authority only improves with each successive book. I am undeniably impressed. Congratulations, Mr. Gwynne; you’ve earned yourself another fan.