A Time of Courage by John Gwynne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Series: Of Blood and Bone (Book #3 of 3)
Genre: Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
Published: 2nd April 2020 by Pan Macmillan (UK) & 7th April 2020 by Orbit (US)
ARC provided by the publisher, Pan Macmillan, in exchange for an honest opinion. All opinions expressed in this review are my own and the quotes included may have changed in the released copy.
A Time of Courage is the glorious and bittersweet conclusion of 140 hundred years (or I should probably say 2000 years) worth of bloody history in the Banished Lands!
I have to admit that I went into this final book with a lot of trepidation, in addition to the positive excitement and anticipation. Could this book really be on the same level as Wrath, the masterpiece that was the conclusion of the previous quartet? Will I love it as much? Would I feel as much joy, and sorrow and satisfaction? Will I stare at the book, blinking away tears and trying to calm my frantic heart as a beloved character met their end? Will my eyes fly through the pages, during a tension-filled battle or duel, to seek the outcome and make sure my heroes survived? The answers were yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. John Gwynne truly outdid himself in this outstanding finale.
Brace yourselves, friends and arm yourselves with courage before embarking on this final ride. There will be blood, and there will be heartbreak, and there will be glory.
Today there will be a reckoning. Today will be a time of vengeance.’
‘Today will be a time of COURAGE!’
If you are not familiar with this series, you should know that the central theme is the eternal battle between light and darkness, between good and evil. Gwynne pitted formidable foes against a bunch of warriors whose strength doesn’t only depend on their physical and tactical prowess, but most importantly on their bonds, their loyalty, their unflappable beliefs and the extraordinary animals they befriend. For that, I believe that this series as a whole is essentially a story of friendship and resilience. The theme of good vs. evil is only a context and a means to tell a very humane, universal and timeless story.
We are just people, all of us the same. Flawed, fragile, stubborn, angry, happy. And life treats no one differently. We are born, and we live, and then we die. It’s what we do while we are here that counts. And if we can be called friend, then we are lucky indeed.
Plot-driven kind of readers, have no fear, plot and action weren’t sacrificed for the sake of characterization. And character-driven readers, rest assured that the relentless pace and the multitude of battles and duels in this book (and in the series as a whole) didn’t prevent Gwynne from writing realistic, genuine characters to root for (or to loathe, there were plenty of those too, and Gwynne wrote them as intricately as he wrote his heroes). A Time of Courage was a very well balanced book and a maelstrom of tactical planning, dark magic, heroism, large scale battles, close quarter combat, emotions and nostalgia.
I won’t be naming characters in this review because the mere mention of a character past the first book in Gwynne’s series could be considered a spoiler. Not gonna lie folks, the man can be merciless toward his characters! I don’t think I cared so deeply about fictional characters and cried so much reading any other series. Some deaths were a blow to the gut but the rational part in me could see they were organic and absolutely not written for shock value. First, these books tell the story of a millennia-old war; one couldn’t reasonably expect all the heroes to survive. And second, the meticulous growth of these characters, their very nature and selflessness made their sacrifice natural and necessary. But knowing this didn’t make it hurt less.
Having a part of the story told from the point of view of two of the baddies served the narrative quite nicely too in my opinion and added more tension (as if there wasn’t enough of that already!). The consistency and strength of the bad guys’ hatred and desire of vengeance and justice (at least their own twisted version of it) could have commanded respect were they not directed toward humankind and toward characters that dedicated their lives to defend those who needed defending and to protect those they love. While I disliked one of these 2 POVs in A Time of Blood (that character was particularly vain, delusional and disturbing), I found it more balanced and nuanced in this installment. It provided an invaluable inside knowledge and an up-close look at the “endgame villain” (Sorry guys, I couldn’t come up with a better name. I’m not the writer after all!). The other POV’s shrieks of rage every time they got routed were a balm and an intense source of satisfaction.
‘With Truth as my shield. ‘And Courage as my sword, I shall stand against the darkness.’
“Truth and Courage”, “Bright Star”, “Shield Wall”, “Corban and Storm”, “Drassil”, “Jehar and the sword dance”… these words and names and places will always mean something special to me. A reminder of a reading journey as real and authentic as any real life experience.
Gwynne infused both his characters and the continent he created, the Banished Lands, with strong, memorable characteristics. I usually have trouble visualizing the places an author spends pages describing and often end up with a vague idea of what they should look like. I didn’t have that issue reading Gwynne’s books. He has a talent at giving you a strong sense of space. The Banished Lands were vivid and vibrant in my mind’s eye and still are. I know the map almost by heart by now and can pinpoint most locations, with my eyes closed. Each of them is distinctive and familiar, like a path well-trodden or a place of which you have fond memories (if you exclude the creepy Wyrms, the fierce Wolven, the ravaging Draigs, the monstrous Ferals, the hound-sized bats, the blood thirsty Returned… of course).
When I strip all the politics and strategies away, it is quite simple: I am fighting this war for you. For my kin, the people I love.’
Another skill John Gwynne honed to a sharp edge in this finale was the way he played with his readers’ expectations. Sometimes, you had these impossible odds and extreme tension and everything worked out for the good guys. At other times, he lead you to believe that the day was won, and just as the anxiety started seeping from your bones and you stopped clenching your book with stiff, white-knuckled fingers, a betrayal or a surprise attack shattered your hopes and twisted your heart with the death of one or more beloved characters. At times, he just toppled plans that have been in the making for numerous chapters (and months or years in the narrative). There was no way you could guess the full outcome of a conflict! The sense of danger was ever-present.
And the same held true for the final battle. A grandiose, overwhelming, epic battle that spanned hundreds of pages. Gwynne gave his readers just enough hints of strategy and ruses to glue them to the pages and then unleashed death and destruction on a jaw dropping scale! It was both tragic and magnetic. All the characters, all the factions and races, all the magic, all the creatures converged to a single point and clashed in an ultimate battle between justice, friendship, honor on one side and evil and corruption on the other side. And I just sat in my chair, well past midnight, and took it all in, mesmerized, horrified, helpless, hopeful, cheering, crying. The cheer brilliance of the ingenious battle strategies and tricks just blew my mind.
I hope this review either confirmed how you felt about this book and series or convinced you to give it a try! This was one of the best, most satisfying and gut-wrenching conclusions I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience. And this 7-book series will always hold a very special place in my heart and my shelves.
I will conclude this rather long review with these lines I wrote before starting A Time of Courage.
Beginning this final journey across the Banished Lands with a mix of eagerness and trepidation, excitement and apprehension, joy and sorrow.
Eagerness and excitement because 1. A Time of Courage is one of my most anticipated books of the year, 2. this is epic fantasy at its finest, 3. this is John Gwynne we’re talking about! A master of grand, emotional, tragic, heroic conclusions.
Trepidation and apprehension, because 1. this is one of my most anticipated books of the year (duh) and I’m trying to tame my expectations… and 2. there will be no more new battles, no more new adventures, no more new journeys in the Banished Lands.
Joy and sorrow because 1. I’m reaching the culmination of something big, genuine and beautiful, 2. I know I’m about to witness moving and inspiring acts of truth and courage and 3. again, this is John Gwynne we’re talking about! Limbs fill fly, heads will be parted from bodies, beloved characters will cross the bridge of swords and hearts (mine for sure) will be broken.