Book Review: A Time of Blood by John Gwynne

Warning: may contain spoilers for A Time of Dread!

The Good: This is a John Gwynne book. NEED I SAY ANYTHING MORE? For those who haven’t read a Gwynne book, let me say this: this is epic fantasy as it was meant to be written – good vs evil, heroes and heathens, myths and monsters, this book has it ALL and then some.

The Bad: It’s not out yet. Seriously. Release this book. I need more people to fangirl about this with.

The Ugly Truth: *screaming intensifies*

The Review: Thank you Tor for providing an ARC to the Hive in exchange for an honest review (and thank you Laura Hughes for sending it to me!)

A Time of Blood (AToB) is the second book in John Gwynne’s second series Of Blood and Bone, set in the same world as his first series The Faithful and the Fallen. Being the second book in the second series, some might wonder whether AToB is twice-cursed to suffer from difficult-second-book syndrome, but Gwynne shatters both the jinxed illusion and the shackles of condition to deliver an epic character-driven tale of a time of love, loss, hope, hate and, yes, a time of blood.

I have to say it. O M G (Oh My Gwynne), he has done it again.

AToB picks up from where A Time of Dread left off. As Riv wrestles with the revelation of her half-breed heritage – a secret that goes against all the angelic Ben-Elim believe in – those she fought for before turn on her to keep the secret safe. Following the climactic clash at Starstone Lake, Drem and friends are the only ones that know about the new demon threat, but even as they escape with the knowledge they are hunted by the demons’ high priest. But even if the Ben-Elim are warned about the threat, it may already be too late as the demonic forces launch an attack on the angels’ stronghold.

The plot comes thick and fast from the pages. In AToB Gwynne has heightened the stakes and worsened the odds, and the peril deepens with every turn of the page. It reminds me of Valour and Wrath (books in Gwynne’s Faithful and the Fallen series), especially for its page-burning pace. Whilst this is book two in the trilogy, it’s not just a continuation of book one, nor is it setting up the pieces for the finale. AToB stands on its own two feet in the shieldwall and it stands fast as one of the best stories I have read this year. Whilst it’s not my favourite Gwynne book (the aforementioned Valour and Wrath take that title) it shows that Gwynne continues to grow as an author. I know what to expect when I pick up a Gwynne book, but every time I do, he exceeds my expectations (and hopes!)

I won’t dwell too long on the characters for fear of spoilers, but Gwynne is a master of crafting real and – more importantly IMHO – relatable characters. To me, Drem, Riv and Bleda, are as titular as Luke, Leia and Han; that is how much I am invested in them. And beyond them, the rest of the cast are just as stellar. Each character you meet as the reader comes to life and stays with you long after the last page. Drem especially. As a character with clear signals of autism, I for one came away heartened by the positive portrayal of a differently-abled character.

Since the release of Malice in 2012, Gwynne has become the modern champion of high and epic fantasy. For me, he rocked the already high bar set by the likes of Le Guin, Martin, and yes, Tolkien, and set it just that little bit higher. I can’t help but gush about The Faithful and the Fallen and the Of Blood and Bone books. They take me back to my formative reading years, a pre-teen Mike hidden under the duvet of his bed reading David Gemmell by torchlight. There is much of Gemmell in Gwynne’s works, including the tried and tested trials of heroic fantasy, the meaning of good vs evil against the need to do right and wrong. Regardless, of all the comparisons I can draw to other authors, Gwynne stands apart in fantasy.

As I read AToB, and again as I write this review, trying to find the final words with a clever hook to try and reel in new readers of the series, I find myself typing ‘classic fantasy’ as (IMHO) Gwynne’s stories hark back to the ‘golden age’ of fantasy. Except this is 2019, the world has changed, and continues to do so. So AToB isn’t really classic.

What is it then?

A Time of Blood is classic Gwynne.

And that, for me, marks John Gwynne not just as one of the best fantasy authors of this generation, but one of the best fantasy authors of all generations.

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