Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Malice and Valour: A Study In Multiple Viewpoints

On Monday, I was ill. Not drastically ill, but just miserable enough to make standing upright a deeply unpleasant experience - the sort of illness best weathered by remaining horizontal and taking a few well-placed naps.

In between my naps, of course, I read. Reading, ironically enough, is something I'm usually able to do during the greatest bouts of sickness, despite the fact I can't seem to do it when under any sort of motion while hale.

The book that kept me company throughout the afternoon was John Gwynne's Valour, the sequel to his debut epic fantasy Malice. I received Malice as a fun birthday present last year, took it for a fun romp through well-trodden territory, and happily settled in and laid it to rest about three days later. I did not even know it had a follow-up until I was raiding my local library toward the end of the holidays - but more on that event later.

And now here I am, on the other end of Valour, anguished and clawing at the walls, waiting for the next one.

What a reversal of fortune, eh?

As a disclaimer, this post is not going to be a review of Malice or Valour - I wrote those on the UK Amazon page, if you're curious and want to poke them for yourself. It's more an exploration of what changed between one and the other that turned me from vaguely interested to near-backflipping with delight when I heard there were two more books on the way.

As I said before, Malice is fairly standard fantasy fare when it comes to plot and premise - apocalyptic war impending, Good God vs Evil God, farm boy hero as chosen one, interesting side characters steal the show, yadda yadda you've heard it before.

Malice, however, did several things right that made it stand out for me a good few leagues above most other fantasy novels of this ilk. For a start, it had some really interesting mythology and politics at work that made for a much deeper and more complex world than the premise lets on. Likewise, said mythology is well-integrated into the entire world and its workings rather than just lurching out of nowhere and plonking itself on some poor character's head, as saviour-ordaining prophecies are wont to do, leaving everyone else a little nonplussed and wondering why they should actually care beyond the designated "end of the world or else" clause.

In fact, it was everyone else that saved Malice from the oblivion of mediocrity.

There must be something about authors named John and their ability to make me care for people I wouldn't ordinarily be inclined to give much of a toss about these days. Now, I really really like multiple-narrative books when handled well. I feel they're more expansive, more engaging, and lend greater strength to a complex narrative that can't be kept track of by one character's worldview. However... I've been rather spoiled by the wonderful depth of George R.R. Martin's writing, so there aren't many that can win me over these days.

Until Valour came along, and made me care again.

When I started reading Valour, I'd forgotten the better part of the events and people from Malice, save one or two that I'd liked somewhat more than the others. I remembered the bare bones of the plot, but, again, little more than the few things I'd liked.

By the time I was five chapters in, I had a near-complete memory of almost everything.

Why? Because everyone else was there to fill me in.

The cast of the series- The Faithful and the Fallen, a mis-leading name if ever there was one - is large, but the narrators number no more than half a dozen. This is the first great thing I like about this series - everybody who's talking has a reason to be talking. We don't just get one of every flavour from the off in the hopes of seeming expansive, leaving half of them sit around with nothing to do because it's only Act One and they don't even stagger onto the stage until Act Two.

The new voices of Valour are spared being wrong-footed by previous tedium and given a chance to make themselves engaging, just as the older characters did in the first book. I actually found some new favourites among these new additions - trumping even the aforementioned George R. R. Martin, most of whose more recent additions I have grouped somewhere between "unremarkable" and "would actively go out of my way to throttle".

From this premise, we get to the best thing about multiple viewpoint stories - you're always interested in someone. The special thing about Valour is that it's not always neccessarily the same someone.

Of course, I had my darlings, as every reader does, but as everyone's stories moved at different paces, Gwynne lets the stories with a quicker pace lead the way while the others can slow-burn in the background for a bit. This keeps the story pacy without it being forced into headlong abandon, giving everyone time to sit back and have their quiet, character-building moments while someone else keeps the stakes in the foreground by getting into, out of, or around some form of action and excitement.

This is done so well that, for the first time in a long while, I have actually found myself being actively invested in a Chosen One. As he's not having to shoulder the entirety of the narrative himself, trying to be interesting while everyone else is succeeding far better over his shoulder, a lot of pressure is taken off him. He gets to step out of focus, do less, and subsequently do more because the author isn't worried about you falling out of love with him, and by extension the story, because he's not your only access point to it.

Finally, there's the investment balance. To use a financial metaphor: readers have a certain amount of support to lend to different "sides" in a narrative. In a standard fantasy like this one, there's roughly your basic two: "Good" and "Evil"(quotes used for ambiguity's sake). Mostly, a narrative will encourage you to put your investment in the "Good" side, where most of your protagonists are. So, of course, even if you get a viewpoint into the "Evil" camp, you've invested elsewere already, so you don't care quite as much for anything that's going on with them.

Valour has feet in both camps - as well as some elsewhere entirely. Your investment can go anywhere and everywhere your favourites go, and depending on whose turn it is in the limelight at a given moment, it can transfer situationally. The balance of the narrative is good enough that even if you don't particularly like the characters in question, their part in the bigger story, and their relationship to other characters, is connected well enough by the over-arching plot thread that you can and do get invested in their moments. Whether you mean to or not, in some cases.

And so, invested I am. Add The Faithful and The Fallen to the series whose next installments I shall track with the ferocity of a hungry seagull who smells your beach barbecue from the other side of the bay. John Gwynne might not have broken out the sausages again just yet, but I've had enough of his burgers to know that, when it comes, I will be back. Until then I shall wait, and watch, and squawk dementedly at every piece of news that comes my way.

In the meantime, dear readers, why don't all of you tell me about your favourite multi-narrative stories? What are your favourite things about their use of multiple narrators? Or, if you're not into that, which series currently has you waiting anxiously for the next addition?

Leave a comment, and let me know!

~ Charley R


  1. Aw, I'm sorry to hear that you were feeling poorly--hopefully you've recovered by now!--but it sounds like you got a remarkable reading experience out of your illness, so yay for silver linings!

    I can't say I've ever read this series, but your thoughts on its use of multiple POV characters are intriguing. I agree, sometimes multiple viewpoints can really enrich a story in ways you don't get from a single narrator, so long as the author gives each character a strong voice and a reason for being there. And I love how, with multiple viewpoints, each character can give you a different look at the nuances of the story. I do think I generally prefer single-viewpoint narrations, just because of the connection you form to the protagonist; but, that said, when the characters are well-written and equally developed I think the same connection can be present with multiple-viewpoint narration, too. For me, I guess it just mostly depends on the book!

    1. I concur - it depends on the book, but multiple POV in epic fantasy is a match made in heaven a mon avis. Particularly in cases like this, where it goes a long way to making a Chosen One story a lot more interesting.

  2. Sounds good, I might have to investigate it. One query: you've compared it to ASOIAF, so can I ask on a scale of LotR to ASOIAF, how much content is there that makes Miriam go squick and look away? (I'm asking about sex. In case you didn't get that bit.) Only, when I started GoT you didn't WARN me about the content and I think I was traumatised for life. So if we're talking down the LotR end of epic fantasy, aka 'none', that's absolutely wonderful. If we're talking ASOIAF, though... might give it a miss.

    1. Muuuuch closer to LOTR. There's only one real "EW!" moment on the sex front, and that's in book two and is literally only on the page for a moment, though it's a bit icky because it's mind-control based non-con ... but it's literally a couple of sentences, and easy to overlook.

      Put it a couple of spaces away from LOTR, then. Yeah, that sounds about right.

      Do have a poke - I think there's a lot in there you'll like. Some awesome lady characters too. Including a particularly good villain, but you don't really meet her for proper until "Valour". Either way, it's good stuff, you should check it out and see if you like it :)