Valour by John Gwynne
Thursday, June 11, 2015
I'm reviewing all ten of the finalists for this year's David Gemmell Legend Awards. You can see the list and my approach here, and vote in the Awards here.
The cauldron was a hulking mass of black iron, tall and wide, squatting upon a dais in the centre of a cavernous room. Torches of blue flame hung on the walls of the chamber, pockets of light punctuating the darkness. In the shadows, circling its edges, long and sinuous shapes moved.... It was utterly black, appearing to suck the torchlight into it, consuming it, reflecting nothing back.
There's a Black Cauldron, and it is really, really black. Very black. Very, very black indeed. Utterly black.
There are possibly two key traits to Valour (2014), and they are both on display here: it doesn't shy away from tropes and it is more than a little repetitive.
Valour takes place in a sort of vaguely Western European mish-mash of a setting. The land was once ruled by giants, but now they're huddled away in a tiny corner, resenting the human occupiers. The human lands are a mess. They were a series of vaguely interdependent kingdoms with a nominal High King, but the events of Malice, the previous book, have upset the status quo. Now the kingdoms are collapsing into war.
Our hero is Corban. Once a blacksmith's son, Corban's had his world turned upside-down. A mysterious sorcerer, the former advisor to the High King, has informed him that he's the Bright Star - the saviour of the land. Now Corban is part of a band of refugees. His home, Ardan, has been overthrown by the forces of darkness, and, deposed princess in tow, Corban's off seeking safe harbour.
The plot of Valour, such as it is, follows Corban on the run through various kingdoms, all of which collapses around him in turn. The armies of Evil Queen Rhin of Cambren and Equally Evil King Nathair of Tenebral are both swarming across the kingdoms, and capturing Corban is high on their agenda. Being the Chosen One can kind of suck.
As ominous as this sounds, the overarching plot - begun in Malice and continued through Valour - involves an even bigger war on the horizon. While Corban is the Bright Star, chosen of the (absent) god Elyon, Nathair is the Black Sun, the chosen of the fallen angel Asroth. There's a God-War on the horizon and, right now, Nathair (assets: big army, several kingdoms, lots of allies, collection of magical artifacts) is in much better shape than Corban (assets: refugees, no political allies, a pet wolf).
Valour is, as noted above, extremely familiar:
'You are a special child, Corban,' his mam continued. 'And I do not mean that in the way that all mothers think of their children. You are different. Chosen.'
She paused, looking deep into his face, searching for something. He just felt confused.
'Chosen? Mam, what's this all about? By who? For what?'
Setting aside the whole 'Mam' thing, there's something, well, valourous, about the whole-hearted and thoroughly unironic embrace of capital-C-Chosen One trope. But, then, Valour has seemingly never met a trope it doesn't want to snuggle.* These include, but are not limited to: the pet wolf, the sword-training, the 'sword dance', the Dark One on His Dark Throne, the evil sorceress, the talking crows, the wise old crone, the mysterious advisor who is actually an ancient wizard, the independent farm of a husky horse-raising farmer and his strapping sons who refuse to bend a knee, and, hell, a (very) Black Cauldron. Even the giants - the long-lived humanoid predecessors who invented magic and its language and are now hanging out being a reclusive dying species - are your paint-by-numbers generic elder race. For that matter, the magic training starts with Corban focusing his mind to lighting a candle (a stick) - just like, well,... everything else ever.
Valour is also, as noted above, repetitive. The book consists of 120 chapters - most quite short - told from eleven different points of view. This leads to a lot of redundancy. Structurally, there are two vaguely parallel journeys: Corban is wandering in one direction, his sister, Cywen, is wandering in another. The two eventually learn of one another, which then leads to a lot of wandering around one another. Team Good doesn't really do much - they're both beholden to circumstance, and spend most of their time being pursued (Corban) or captured (Cywen).
A few of the POV characters have their own stories (Maquin, Fidele, Lykos), but most serve as sidekicks or out-riders to the siblings (Camlin, Evnis, Uthas, Coralen, Veradis). The members of this latter group either retell something that Corban or Cywen are up to, or run ahead of them, plot-wise, with Corban and Cywen then catching up in their next chapter.
If that sounds complicated... it really isn't. What happens in Valour is a lot of having the same events told to you, then retold by one of the two central protagonists, and then told again by someone else, as a means of sharing the event with the other primary protagonist.
Of all the characters, two stand out as the most interesting. Maquin is a veteran warrior, who travels on his own particular redemption arc. He feels guilty at the demise of his friends and comrades, and his efforts to regain his honour compel him from one suicidal quest to another, each time swearing some new and improbable oath. His story takes an unexpected turn (quite possibly the only one in Valour) and, although his adventures are almost completely isolated from the other events of the book, they're some of the most grittily entertaining.
The other noteworthy perspective is Veradis'. As the First Sword of Nathair, Veradis is a young, superbly-talented warrior, with a deep-rooted sense of honour. Unfortunately, he's also on the wrong side. As Nathair's gathers increasingly creepy allies and does increasingly disturbing things, Veradis' commitment to the cause begins to waver - even though his loyalty to his friend does not. As long as Nathair is convinced of his cause, so is Veradis. If Maquin's story represents Valour's most surprising plot, Veradis gives us a perspective on Valour's most innovative character development: Nathair believes that he is the Bright Star. And, as the saviour of humanity, Nathair knows that whatever he does is justified, and, whatever he has to do, he'll do it. Veradis, with a certain degree of reluctance, agrees.
Unfortunately, Veradis' point of view is the closest we come to exploring the concept of the 'well-intended' villain; and he spends most of it thinking "I have a bad feeling about this", and the rest gawking at Cywen. (Valour isn't subtle about its intended romantic pairings.) Nor is there much nuance to Nathair - thanks to the other viewpoints, we know he is the Big Bad.**
All of this is making Valour sound infinitely more complex than it actually is. Ultimately, this is a very traditional middle book, filled with very familiar characters doing all the expected things. The Chosen One has been removed - forcibly - from his comfort zone and forced to confront his destiny. Meanwhile, the armies of darkness are massing. Everything is destabilised in a way that creates two (convenient and easily identifiable) sides and one inevitable conflict. Nothing is resolved within this volume, but it does set the stage for the next.
So how's Valour stand up to my DGLA criteria?
Is it fantastic? Yes. In case you miss the bits with the magic and the prophesy and the giants and the magic weapons, there's actually a full on angels vs demons battle midway through the book.
Is it entertaining? This is a little tricky. As with Malice, I'm simply the wrong reader.** If this was the first time I'd ever read a fantasy book, I'd be all SHIZZAMAWOW! A prophesy of good versus evil in the ultimate battle for the universe! Gods! Magic training! Wolves! A wise old women who is ACTUALLY a witch! A mysterious magician figure who appears in time of need! A race of quasi-Celtic Giants! Sword-fighting lessons! Stuff! Sadly, this isn't my first fantasy book, and as such, I found it tough going. I'll call this a 'maybe'.
Is it immersive? Nyah. There's a lot of meandering about, but none of the individual locations really come to life. We've got the Eddings conundrum where each of the (neighbouring) countries all have their own Very Distinctive National Characteristics. This helps makes them memorable, but not much more. That said, I don't think that's the 'purpose' of the world in Valour - the setting is there to provide a platform for the plot.
Is it emotionally engaging? Maybe. The many, many POVs don't help - for every Veradis there is an Uthas; for every Maquin, a Corban. And, as with world-building, I don't think Valour is about fully-fleshed characters. They exist as vehicles for the reader to see him/herself in the scenarios, rather than distinctive entities in their own right.
It is embarrassing? Nope. I mean, a lot of the tropes baked in are sort of... inherently silly (there's a pair of young white male Chosen Ones, and the rest of the world is aligning around them!), but outside of that, nope.
Is it different? Nope. This may be the most traditional traditional epic fantasy I've read since... well... Malice. Hell, it actively resists innovation, as the one new thing it brings to the table is the idea that the Dark Sun thinks he's the Bright Star (translated from 'epic-ese', that's 'the bad guy thinks he's the good guy') - but aside from seeding that idea, Valour does nothing with it.
That said, it is important to note 'difference' is one of my criteria, plucked from thin air as a means of evaluating an otherwise completely unqualified award. Valour isn't new or innovative or different, but that doesn't make it a 'bad' book. In fact, despite the mild scourging I've inflicted above, I believe the contrary. I'm not the right audience for this book, and, in other circumstances, would have no business reviewing it. Nor do I think the criteria I've chosen - any of them - mesh with the book's particular strengths.
So let's give respect where it is due: Wolves are cool. Magic weapons are cool! Lighting fires with your mind? Cool! Being told by a mysterious wizard that you're really, really special and, in fact, the most important person in the world?! Cool! - And especially resonate with with teen and pre-teen readers. The cliches of epic fantasy are cliches for a reason (...that phrase is a cliche in and of itself).
I'd hesitate to put this series in front of an experienced fantasy reader, and I certainly struggle to define it as the 'best of the year' by my invented DGLA standards... but... I would recommend it to those coming into the genre with fresh eyes. There's cool stuff, it is a pleasant enough read, it isn't bleak or grimdark, there are plenty of opportunities to see yourself in the characters' shoes and it is a simple journey, unburdened with exposition. It is an easy, welcoming epic. I noted with Malice that I would've torn through this book as a twelve year old, and the same is true with Valour.
*Tiny bugbear: Corban throws a hissy fit and refuses to learn about his Destiny. Gar and his 'mam' are both like, fine, we'll tell you soon though, because, you know, God-War a-comin'. You know how long it takes for that conversation to occur? Weeks. Which is frustrating because a) as the reader, half that infodump has already happened, so why are we keeping Corban in the dark? And b) Corban et al are literally wandering around doing nothing, you'd think that, as characters, they'd be desperate to have something to talk about. But, no.
**Arguably Valour's final moments, complete with high-budget fight scene, should be about Nathair. But, sadly, we won't know how he reacts to them until the next book.