Friday, October 24, 2014

Microreview [book]: Valor, by John Gwynne

Not bad, but the problems of Malice worsen...

Gwynne, John. Valor. Orbit: 2014.

Buy it here.

In my review of author John Gwynne's first installment of this trilogy, Malice, I pointed out the extreme difficulty, as a reader, in suspending my disbelief that some 'good guys' would continue to serve an antiChrist-like figure even after he starts showing his true nature. Such guys include legions of samurai-like ninja supersoldiers who had spent their entire lives preparing to serve the prophesied avatar of the good god, one half of the world's Zoroastrian battle between light and darkness (complete with angels and demons). But even if they're completely unable to tell right from wrong, and even if we as readers are willing to swallow this wildly improbable state of affairs, Main Baddie Nathair's right-hand man, Veradis, continues to be such a good soul in this volume and to serve Nathair loyally—even after seeing his friends murdered by Nathair's other right-hand man, the "angel", and his pet giant—that I have to draw the line at him.

Gwynne is obviously building up to a Big Reveal, when Veradis will realize the error of his ways, switch sides to Main Good Guy Corban and (it's looking likelier and likelier) fall in love with Corban's spunky sister, but the sustained dramatic irony, an annoyance in the first book, is an extremely distracting cacophony here in book two. Much of the suspense in the book is built around different characters (finally!) figuring out who's good and who's bad, and that sort of thing got old quickly. Essentially, it's melodrama: we the readers are meant to empathize with poor misunderstood Corban and hate slimy pretender Nathair, grow furious with each new betrayal of the latter and cheer for each narrow escape by the former. That formula worked fairly well for book one, but here in Valor, it's not doing it for me anymore—I feel like Gwynne tried to milk this angle for too long.

On the other hand, in world with such starkly delineated notions of good and evil, once the battle lines are drawn, there won't be much left to do but have a Big Fight, and Gwynne wisely reasoned, I suppose, that having Corban and Friends on the run, constantly harried by foes, makes for better entertainment than a 500-page battle. Only trouble is, the extended chase scenes follow a predictable formula as well: each time, Corban manages to escape, but almost invariably loses another person precious to him, a member of his (as they literally call it) 'pack.' So I didn't even need to glance at the number of pages remaining in the book to know when I was getting near the end—let's just say the steady attrition of Corban's buddies takes its toll, until there obviously wasn't any more mileage Gwynne could get out of it without sacrificing a Main Character (you know, the kind that Storm-trooper types can never hit no matter how many times they fire their ray guns!), since he'd run out of Second-Tier Important Characters Whose Death, While Sad and All, Doesn't Really Change Much (you know, the kind people like J.K. Rowling sacrifice instead of really important characters so there can still be a happy ending! Just imagine the stink everyone would have put up if, instead of one of the totally expendable Weasley twins, it had been Ron—or Harry!?!?—who fell at The End!).

In Gwynne's world, bad guys hit their targets, alright, but only if they're aiming for second-tier nobodies!

You might be sensing by now that my tolerance for authors who have melodramatic cake and eat it too is rather low. I'd prefer to see an author unafraid to sacrifice the Ned Starks now and again, because it makes the story weightier to know that even those hard-to-hit Main Characters are vulnerable—in short, it places the Happy Ending in jeopardy! But Gwynne, at least so far, is having his Storm-trooper stand-ins fire and miss (or at least, hit only the equivalent of the Weasely twins).

The vaguely post-apocalyptic setting remains interesting, as does the under-populated human lands—but the latter are definitely firmly within a Celtic/Western European middle ages paradigm, and I'd say that particular brand of fantasy has been war-hammered almost to death by now. I hope that Gwynne can raise his game for the titanic final volume in the series, which I will look forward to reading—even after the slight disappointment of Valor.

The Math

Objective Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for continuing the cool blending of post-apocalyptic world with Mithraic/ Zoroastrian struggle between angels and demons, light and dark

Penalties: -1 for continuing to milk the dramatic irony/melodrama angle for all it is worth, -1 for keeping Main Characters safe at the expense of the second tier of supporting characters

Nerd coefficient: 6/10 "Still enjoyable, but the flaws are (getting) hard(er) to ignore"

[I know what you're thinking. "A 6/10? That's harsh!" Not so—at NOAF, that means Valor is a cut above the typical fare out there.]

This has been a communique from Zhaoyun, glasses-wearing academic by day, superhero sf/f aficionado by night, and one of the Main Characters at NOAF since 2013. Vive la resistance boutonneux!