I'm going to get a little personal with you here, guys. I've been really, incredibly poor for a couple of years now. Virtually everything I earn, after basic necessities, has been going towards getting my degree. Why am I telling you this in a book review? To explain why I don't do book reviews. Put simply, I don't buy books to read for pleasure, nowadays, because that's a luxury I've had to put on hold. No books means no book reviews.
While this kept me sane during the first SPFBO (when you can't read the competition, you can avoid obsessing about whether another's prose is better or worse), it's been a bit of a disappointment since then. I wanted to read everyone's SPFBO books, afterward. And someday I will. After the degree is paid for.
So along comes Graham Austin-King the other day (one of my SPFBO cohort), and he says “Psst, hey kid, wanna read an advance copy of Faithless?” To which I replied “Yup.” And then he said “So let it be written, so let it be done.” (Okay, I might be paraphrasing.) It didn't hurt a bit that Sarah Chorn had edited it. Sarah was, is and will be one of the ten bloggers who judge the SPFBO, if you aren't aware, and while “Trouble's Braids” wasn't one of her favorite books from the competition, her review of it is one of my favorite reviews to this day.
Wow, okay, that's three paragraphs and I still haven't started talking about the book. I should probably do that.
Faithless is a lot of things. It's an exercise in word-building, an exploration of faith and the loss of faith, and perhaps especially, it's a kind of meditation on morality. All of this is experienced through the lens of Wynn, a boy sold by his father to the Temple of the Forgefather to be an “aspirant” – one who might someday become a priest. As Wynn quickly learns, what this really means is he's to be a slave in the mines below the temple. And while there's a real, if pathetically slender, chance of him making it out of the mines and up to the temple, the troubles he would leave behind underground would only be swapped for other, less straightforward dangers in the temple's candle-lit halls. There is a very good reason that the religion of the god of smiths has gone into steep decline, and why the Forgefather turned his face away from his priesthood.
I'm a writer. I can't help but read with a writer's eye. To me, the most striking thing about Faithless is the world building. Graham has created, in Faithless, a meticulous microcosm of a world where the wider, outside world is barely a rumor. There is a claustrophobic, inward-turning flavor to the book that, while uncomfortable, is perfect for the material. The world of Faithless is divided into three parts: The Temple of the Forge Father, the makeshift cavern-town of Aspiration below it, and the mines and caverns below that. And for the first book in a possible series, that's quite enough. Wynn's world is grim, and literally and figuratively dark.
In such a world, it's little wonder that the main character is often faced with terrible choices. It's also not surprising that some of the choices he makes echo the title of the book. In the world Wynn finds himself in, the placing of faith in others is a necessity for survival – but keeping faith others have placed in you means never escaping a hellish existence. Ultimately Wynn is an engaging protagonist because of his flaws, his faithlessness, and his own recognition of them.
So, to sum up, I found Faithless to be an engaging fantasy in an unusual, well-executed secondary world, which is something that I love. I also have a fondness for the exploration of religion in fantasy, which is often glossed over. In Faithless, religion is one of the main themes, and it provides the central mystery and the basis for a creepy and bloody third act. What's not to like?
Many thanks to Graham Austin-King for providing an advance reading copy. I truly enjoyed it. I hope Graham continues the story.