There is no shortage of blacksmithing in fantasy. From the very beginning, we had dwarves pounding mithril in the ancient Mines of Moria, and after Tolkien, it is almost rare to find a fantasy novel without some type of weapon-smithing or armor-forging. But something being common does not mean that it is well-told nor interesting. I have never read a book, fantasy or otherwise, that takes as much care with the process of the forge as does Graham Austin-King’s Faithless. The scenes are so evocative, so minute in detail, that I found myself wanting to forge something – despite having no experience and not much drive to do so before picking up this book. The forge scenes, while important to the narrative, are not even that ubiquitous, but rather interspersed throughout in a powerful way that makes them all the more important when they happen.
If the rest of Faithless had been as good as its best scenes, it would be a masterpiece, but we could likely say that of any book. What we get in Faithless is the story of a young man faced with challenges that he sometimes fails and sometimes passes. It is a novel set almost entirely underground, where sunlight is a scarcity and most of the people struggle on a daily basis. It is a story of faith in a higher power, and how that faith can be either a force for good or a tool of great evil or grand apathy. I had some issues with the track that Faithless winds down, but after letting it sit for a week or so I believe that this is a book I will not forget. It is well worth-reading, for several of its key scenes alone.
The setting of Faithless is the subterranean city of Aspiration, a dual-purpose name that has both positive and negative annotations. Aspiration is a city in service to its god because it is a mining town and the god of Aspiration is the god of the forge. Resting above the town, and only accessibly through carefully guarded tunnels, is the Church of the Forgefather. This is a church of blacksmiths who craft items that are famous worldwide and whose craft is matched by none. In all the mythology and fantasy I have read, rarely have I seen such detail given to a religion. The priests of the Forgefather operate much like any order of monks (with all of the same issues that might come with such operations). They are sequestered, and they take apprentices and teach those apprentices through various ranks of the priesthood. It is a deft amalgamation of craftwork with faith that works remarkably well. It’s believable and shows the common threads that many of us probably don’t recognize when we think of professions and callings.
When the story begins, we meet Wynn, a young man abandoned by his father and set to work in the Forgefather’s mines. Wynn struggles, but quickly proves himself an apt student of the ways of the Forgefather. Running in parallel track to Wynn is Kharios, already risen through the mines to become an acolyte in the temples above. Austin-King weaves these two stories in a way that allows us to see into the lives of both miners and would-be priests and how the two intertwine. It’s a bold method of storytelling, proven bolder by the direction it later takes, and while the characters are remarkably similar, the environs are what matter in this instance. There are other characters that come in and out of the lives of our protagonists, but it is Wynn and Kharios who really take center stage. One priest mentor of Kharios’ is perhaps the only other character in the novel whose presence is noteworthy. Everyone else seems to exist solely to push Wynn or Kharios in a certain direction.
Graham Austin-King’s prose is of particular note, as is the way in which he describes certain scenes and the tension involved in ramping up to those scenes. There are a few passages in this book that are as good as any I’ve ever read. For example, there is a killing that happens, one that is hinted at in various ways leading up to the actual act – which I should mention doesn’t even happen until the latter half of the book – and the scene in which it happens is so powerful and shocking that even knowing that it was going to happen, I was still stunned. Another, simpler scene where a cave-in crushes the life from a miner is equally powerful, not so much in its violence as in the detailed way in which it is described and and the reactions to it by the surrounding players. These, combined with those passages where Austin-King describes the forgework, are the lifeblood of this book and make it work incredibly well. Some of the plot points in the book didn’t work for me as I had hoped, particularly when it becomes a little more supernatural than I’d have expected (I know that it’s fantasy), but my reservations pale in comparison to what I took away from Faithless.
My main issue with the novel, and one that is hard to talk about without diving into spoilers, is a sense of expectation that it soiled for me. For most of the book, there is a dual-channeled story of a young man struggling within the ranks of the Church, and a younger boy struggling in the depths of the dark maw of the mine. The former story is powerful in its implications of sexual abuse and power dynamics, and I could have honestly read an entire fantasy novel just based around those themes alone. That the latter story runs into and around the former only adds to what could have been an amazingly subtle telling of real, traumatic events within a secondary world. Instead, at some point, things, and I hate to say this, devolve into some fairly typical fantasy supernatural stuff that was simply not as interesting as the more human themes that preceded it. Those themes weren’t lost, and in some ways the supernatural bits did add to them (particularly where religion is concerned), but I felt a little crestfallen when my expectations were subverted.
In the end, Faithless was a mixed bag for me, but I enjoyed reading it enough that I can easily recommend it to anyone looking for something that isn’t as common in the fantasy genre. There are scenes in Faithless that I would pull out and use as teaching material if I were heading a creative writing class – they are that good. There is some character work that could be improved upon, particularly where its protagonists are concerned, and no one in Faithless truly stands out except possibly Ossan, the mentor/priest (and for reasons that would be hard to recommend). But for all that, Faithless is a beautifully written and flawed gem, and I am legitimately looking forward to what else Graham Austin-King has to offer the fantasy genre. He has the potential to be one of the greats.