Book Review: The Failures (The Wanderlands, #1) by Benjamin Liar

Book Review: The Failures (The Wanderlands, #1) by Benjamin Liar

This review is a copy of the transcript of my video review on The Failures

ARC provided by the publisher—DAW Books—in exchange for an honest review.

Cover art by theBookDesigners

The Failures by Benjamin Liar

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Series: The Wanderlands (Book #1 of 3)

Genre: Fantasy, Science Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, Sci-fi, Post-apocalypse

Pages: 544 pages (Hardcover edition)

Published: 2nd July 2024 by DAW Books

The Failures is an extremely ambitious, mind-bending, and meticulously constructed debut novel.

“If we are truly just cogs, and part of some great machine, then it must run poorly indeed.”

Finding a new epic fantasy debut from a new author in traditional publishing is relatively rare. At the time of this review, traditional publishing seems to prefer cozy fantasy and romantasy most. But even if the state of publishing is favoring epic fantasy, a debut as twisted, ambitious, and rewarding as The Failures by Benjamin Liar would still be a once-in-a-blue-moon moment. The Failures was never in my radar. I didn’t even know about this book until I received an email from Matt Bialer, the literary agent of Patrick Rothfuss, Tad Williams, and many other authors, including Benjamin Liar. Bialer asked me to put The Failures on my list of books to watch out for in 2024 because he and DAW Books believed reading this book felt like encountering The Name of the Wind for the first time again. The Name of the Wind is one of my favorite books of all time, and although The Failures is very different from The Name of the Wind, hearing that kind of statement from Rothfuss’s agent and publisher means there was no way I could pass this up. Additionally, two of my favorite authors, Tad Williams and Christopher Ruocchio, sang their echoing praise for this book. And I am in awe of the huge scope Liar prepared for this book and trilogy.

“Any utopia founded on the assumption that people will suddenly stop being selfish, irrational monkeys is a fool’s dream.”

The official premise says it nicely. The Failures is the first book in The Wanderlands trilogy by Benjamin Liar. It is a genre-breaking blend of post-apocalyptic sci-fi and epic fantasy about a scattered group of unlikely heroes traveling across their broken mechanical planet to stave off eternal darkness.

The Wanderlands—A vast machine made for reasons unknown—was broken long ago.

First went the sky, splintering and cracking, and then very slowly, the whole machine—the whole world—began to go dark. Following the summons of a strange dream, a scattering of adventurers, degenerates, and children find themselves drawn toward the same place: the vast underground Keep. They will discover there that they have been called for a purpose—and that purpose could be the destruction of everything they love.

For below the Keep, imprisoned in the greatest cage ever built by magicians and gods, lies the buried Giant: Kindaedystrin. It is the most powerful of its kind, and its purpose is the annihilation of all civilization. But any kind of power, no matter how terrible, is precious in the dimming Wanderlands, and those that crave it are making their moves.

All machines can be broken, and the final cracks are spreading. It will take only the careless actions of two cheerful monsters to tip the Wanderlands towards an endless dark…or help it find its way back to the light.

“This is a story about the end of the world; this is a story about monsters. From such small origins come such calamity; from such humble beginnings are born such dire endings. May the Mother have mercy on them for their innocence. And for what they did, for what they caused to happen, may the Twins rake the flesh from their bones until the end of all time.”

Where should I begin reviewing a book like The Failures? It is difficult to choose where to start; I can tell you right from the first chapter, I was instantly reminded of FromSoftware’s Dark Souls series, one of my favorite series of games of all time. The utility of bonfire in the land of absolute darkness in the first chapter, and then having this as a recurring implementation in the unconventional narrative throughout the whole book, made The Failures far from what I would categorize as accessible for new readers of the genre. It is relatively demanding. The narrative doesn’t hold your hand. Terminologies and the story structure require your attention, and the book will shift the gears of your mind to work, keep asking questions, and solve answers on its own. For those of you who feel that new epic fantasy, lately and as seldom as they’re published now, tend to handhold the readers too much, The Failures is the book for you.

“A child should possess three qualities in abundance: Wonder, Curiosity, and Mischief. The child should pursue these qualities constantly, and for as long as they are able, for this is the purpose and sole responsibility of Childhood. When the child becomes an adult, of course, these qualities become the most dangerous sort of liability.”

Every chapter, terminology, and revelation I learned from understanding the subtleties and contexts astonished me repeatedly. When you think about it, the premise of the entire novel, as I said earlier, for the lack of a better word, is so badass in premise and execution. Liar’s intricate world-building is, without a doubt, one of the primary strengths of The Failures. Having a story taking place in a land of darkness where light is precious, and then the existence of a complex and massive city hidden underneath an insanely vast mountain with a supposedly extinct giant with the capability of destroying or saving the world made The Failures a unique reading experience. When I was reading the book, I kept thinking… there’s no way this kind of novel and world-building is conjured in the span of a year or two. And I was proven right when I read the acknowledgment at the end of the book. Benjamin Liar said the conception of the world behind The Failures began 30 years ago. And I am not surprised by this. Arcane energies, automata, the behemoth, possibly multiple worlds, ancient weapons, portal-forged swords, mysterious characters with legendary deeds, and many more. The rich world-building, history, and plotting behind The Failures with the theme of darkness and light, redemption, family, ambition, and friendship is rigorous and mind-blowing. Something worth doing is worth your time doing well, and Liar ascertained that.

“Like all stories about the end of the world, it is hard to know where to start, and doubly so with stories about The Monsters. Do we start when Gun met Jackie? Or, perhaps, when they got the sword, the piece of dumb steel that would play such an oversized part in such great events? Do we instead travel back to when Gun first had the dream, the dream of darkness and a Giant, and of a shining, silvery sword? Do we, perhaps, attempt to relate the unremarkable story of Gun’s childhood, in an effort to tease out reasons behind what he did? Must we peer at the young face of Jackie Aimes to see if we can find the seed of the creature she would become?”

Mysteries were constantly evoked from every POV chapter, and Liar ramps up the storytelling quality with more answers AND questions with every page. With new answers I gained, new questions spurred in my mind. This is owed to how intriguing and engaging the storylines were. From my experience, I wouldn’t categorize The Failures as a character-driven novel. And that is usually an issue for me. The narrative is told through the perspective of several POV characters, and there is an omniscient tone and execution to the storytelling. Some parts of the narration slightly reminded me of reading The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu. This puts the characters at risk of feeling distant. Thankfully, the tone and focus of the narrative are always centered on the main character within the group of POV. Plotting is one of the most significant aspects of The Failures. The story is divided into several groups of characters. First, we have the perspective of Sophie Vesachai and her companions, The Killers. Despite being foul-mouthed, reckless, and rude, Sophie’s deep protectiveness and faith toward her group of friends—such as Bear, Trik, etc—named The Killers was really good. Like Sophie, we readers are trying to find the answers to many questions in the story together. I wouldn’t dub The Killers as my favorite storyline, though.

“Trust, unlike love, is a deliberate exercise of will. You can’t help who you love. But you sure as hell can choose who you trust. Even if, as is sometimes the case, you happen to love them.”

My favorite storylines in The Failures are the perspectives of The Monsters, The Convox/Cabal, and The Lost Boys. And every one of them has their respective feel and strengths. The Monsters, the tale of Gunnar Anderson and Jackie, felt more post-apocalyptic than the other. But the darkness and stakes in their story felt powerful and palpable. Their decision and careless actions with their sword and walking sticks in the face of deadly automata and overwhelming darkness will be crucial to the state of The Wanderlands. I was always excited to be back reading Gunnar and Jackie’s story. It felt like I was reading the prose version of Tsutomu Nihei’s work—the mangaka responsible for Blame! and Knights of Sidonia.

“First, I may be good or I may be bad, but I’m a lot more likely to be both. Like, for instance, every single other creature that ever lived. Thinking you know what someone will do just because you think they’re ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is a quick way to lose at the game you’re playing. Good people do appalling things for good reasons, and bad people do good things for selfish reasons and every combination between.

And I guess, in a way, the same can also be applied to The Lost Boys, which is essentially a coming-of-age story of James and Chris D’Essan under the tutelage of Alvarez. Coming-of-age is always one of my favorite tropes in science and fantasy, and it was easy for me to get used to their story. The themes of brotherhood, the death of innocence, and childhood are explored heavily here.

“His brother loved learning things, loved it more than anything else in the world, and this made him James’ natural enemy. Chris—and James could still hardly believe it was true—read books for fun.”

Finally, we have the first POV chapter of the novel, The Convox or The Cabal. It would not be far-fetched to say this is like witnessing the perspective and scheming of the main villains—Winter, Candle, West, D’alle, Primary Gray—of The Failures. I wish I could talk about the best aspects of these POV chapters in more detail, but there is a bit of an issue in trying to explain their magnificence as spoiler-free as possible fully. The Failures is one of those circumstances where I believe the less you know about these characters, the better your reading experience will be. But rest assured, it is all brilliant. Although they might feel disjointed at first, intentionally, all of their tales are gradually leading toward a grand convergence.

“Names are important things, defining things; magical things. The man who currently calls himself West has had many names. They are like lenses through which he projects himself. There is power in names, power over hearts, channels for the mind. “

Actually… There is one more POV chapter in The Failures. The Deadsmith. Your miles may vary, but unfortunately, The Deadsmith is the only POV character that did not click with me. Not as much as the previous four I mentioned. Even though similar to them, The Deadsmith story converged eventually as well; it is too bad I found only the last two chapters of his storyline engaging enough to enjoy. The convergence also did not feel as satisfying as how the narrative converged in the other four POV chapters. This was the only criticism I had with the book. But again, this is a very personal take. I am sure other readers will feel differently about this.

“Point being, you little stubborn sum-bitch, that you can take some dirt and you can make the most incredible things in the world, but it takes work. It takes sacrifice. It takes time, and it takes commitment. It takes wisdom.”

Overall, I was thoroughly impressed. I have no doubt rereading The Failures by Benjamin Liar will be an entirely new adventure from reading it for the first time. If the pleasure of the first time reading the novel is in decoding how the twisted labyrinth fits together, the second time reading with all the knowledge acquired will be to have a deeper understanding of the author’s vision and storytelling. I have already highlighted more than 40 well-written passages for my perusals next time.

“Only a fool steps over an unexpected weight of silver because they are hoping to find gold.”

The Failures is a complex, ambitious, and madness of a puzzle designed carefully. It was as if this debut novel was penned by a veteran author in the SFF genre. Story and chronology structure-wise, the closest popular science fantasy book I can think of is The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin and Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Blame! by Tsutomu Nihei is the closest vibe and tone I felt from reading The Failures. As the author mentioned at the end of the book, he borrowed elements from so many giant literary authors in the SFF genre, such as Tad Williams, Ursula K. Le Guin, Dan Simmons, Stephen King, Bujold, Glen Cook, Stephen Donaldson, China Mieville, Tsutomu Nihei, and more. Through them, Liar became the incredible architect who renovated The Failures into his own distinct work of art. It is a novel 30 years in the making, and the ending of The Failures exhibited that the endgame has only just begun. Multiple plot threads have converged. And the fate of the Wanderlands will be decided in the remaining books of the trilogy. I, for one, am excited to have this kind of ambitious debut still being published by a new author. And I definitely will read the sequels whenever they are ready.

“There’s no more time for secrets, or false names, or subterfuge. It’s time that we know each other’s stories; the long and painful and uncomfortable stories of how we ended up in the Keep, here at the end— and beginning—of everything.”

You can order this book from: Amazon | Blackwells (Free International shipping)

The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.

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