“The temples of the Forgefather have fallen. The clerics and defenders that could once be found across the nine lands are no more. Priests huddle in the great temple, clinging to the echoes of their lost religion. But the Father has fallen silent. There are none who still hear his voice.
The mines of Aspiration lie far below the temple’s marble halls. Slaves toil in the blackness, striving to earn their way into the church and the light. Wynn has been sold into this fate, traded for a handful of silver. In the depths of the mines, where none dare carry flame, he must meet his tally or die. But there are things that lurk in that darkness, and still darker things within the hearts of men.
When the souls bound to the great forge are released in a failed ritual, one novice flees down into the darkness of the mines. The soulwraiths know only hunger, the risen know only hate. In the blackest depths Kharios must seek a light to combat the darkness which descends.”
Faithless is the latest book by Graham Austin-King, the first novel I’ve read by this author. I picked it up in no small part due to the amazing cover (designed by Pen Astridge), but also the tantalising blurb. It hints at so many interesting things… a fallen religion, magic and ritual based around a god of fire and forge, young protagonists struggling under the weight of slavery and duty, and dark forces set loose upon the world. And Faithless delivers all of that, just not in the way I expected.
The mines of Aspiration and the Temple of the Forgefather are no Hogwarts – they’re much more grim and violent than that – but there is a comparison to be made. Fantasy fans usually love or hate the training-to-become-a-wizard trope, and depending on which side of that you fall on, you might either love or hate this novel. The trope is given its own spin in this tale, for sure – enough to make it seem fresh and interesting – but make no mistake, it’s the majority of this story.
I personally love this staple fantasy narrative, so it surprised me that I didn’t quite love this iteration of it. The novel is well-written, finding its stride after a few chapters, and the characters are well-drawn, but I found myself struggling to keep picking the book back up. I put this largely down to the pacing, which seemed to drag its heels until roughly the 85% mark, and also the structure.
I don’t want to give too much away about the particular narrative structure of this book, but I will say that one of the main plot points mentioned in the blurb doesn’t occur until you’re 65% of the way through. There’s some narrative subterfuge going on here, too – I understand why the author has done it, and some readers will love the reveal of it, but I personally feel that the book would have been stronger if the author had written it “up-front” and employed a more traditional dual narrative technique. And the way the reveal is done, Austin-King sacrifices narrative momentum for tension (I presume), which sadly did not work for me – instead, the tension dials down dramatically just as it’s ratcheting up. And the novel never quite manages to recapture that previous momentum. I thought it was an odd choice, but perhaps other readers will feel the benefit where I didn’t.
Overall, this is a largely well-written book that glories in its grim and violent setting. There’s a lot to like for fans of grimdark. The characters are suitably flawed, and the magic and mystique at the heart of the book is intriguing. Unfortunately for me (and I might be in the minority here), the narrative structure and pacing worked to disconnect me from the story and I didn’t care enough about the characters to make the journey worthwhile. However, the author did answer a lot of the questions regarding the central mystery of the novel, which I did appreciate and which I think many readers will find satisfying.
I’ll probably check out what Austin-King has to offer next, though I’ve not been inspired to mine his backlist just yet. I give Faithless three out of five stars, since I suspect it warrants that even though my own reading of it would be closer to two stars.