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Faithless by Graham Austin-KingWhat is Faithless?

“A dark, claustrophobic read that grips you and doesn’t let go.” – John Gwynne, author of the The Faithful and the Fallen. “Dark, unique, well-written, and deeply engaging.”Fantasy Book Review.

Sometimes even gods need a saviour. 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 black of the mines. The soulwraiths know only hunger, the risen know only hate. In the blackest depths he must seek a light to combat the darkness.

Review

I was a big fan of Graham Austin-King’s Riven Wyrde Saga which was a darker-than-normal story about child-stealing, sex-slave using, murderous fairies attacking a Medieval fantasy world. In that novel, the Catholic Church stand-in is revealed to be nothing more than a catspaw for the sidhe in order to provide them with a method for covering up their crimes as well as keep the public from panicking. Knowing this was a story about religion and faith, plus the title, I was wondering if something similar would be the case here.

In fact, Faithless paints a complicated and multi-faceted (albeit very cynical) interpretation of religion. The Forgemaster’s faith is one which has degenerated to a massive protection racket and slave-trade where converts to the religion are forced to mine various minerals while only a small number are brought up to join the clergy proper. One of the highest ranking priests, Ossan, is also a pedophile who leverages his position to satisfy his depraved appetites.

The protagonists, Wynn and Kharios, are two individuals caught up in the corrupt power struggles between the priesthood as well as the mine bosses. Kharios is the more cynical of the pair, being willing to do almost anything to escape the mines. Wynn is more naive, having been taken from his home and dumped into a situation far darker than he expected. Both do things which are reprehensible in order to try to better themselves.

The church of the Forgemaster is a repulsive faith which is exploiting the belief the locals have in them in order to enrich themselves. However, interestingly, Graham Austin-King doesn’t leave it at that. The crimes of the clergy does not appear to be the sum-total of the faith and it manages to inspire a few characters even as they’re ground underneath its boot. Whether the Forgemaster exists, has ever existed, or his moral disposition is left ambiguous–which I think makes the questions raised by certain characters more interesting.

Is the story grimdark? Oh, I think so. It just takes a different tact than is usually taken in the story. Instead of the characters being tough anti-heroes, they’re good people who are just willing to do evil deeds. It’s an interesting take as it allows you to be genuinely surprised when they do what they have to do to survive. Even the most reprehensible characters also show layers as Ossan’s crimes are unforgivable but he desires to find the truth of his faith.

The atmosphere Graham Austin-King creates for the mines is suitably terrifying and he really creates a great feeling of banal evil. The fact the miners can mine gold, coal, iron, copper, and other minerals all in the same mine goes unexplained. I also felt the book’s timeline jumped around too much with some sections being before the previous ones and others moving far in the future before going back again to the past. I also felt the last third of the novel became less interesting when it became, essentially, a fantasy zombie story. I would have preferred if the story had remained about the church’s evil. Indeed, “pedophile priest” is a bit of an overused cliche and one which I felt weakened the story rather than strengthened it.

The supporting cast for the book is a well-balanced group of individuals each adapting to life underground in various ways. We had the cynics, the ambitious, the resigned, and those just trying to make their tally. I was a little surprised there was a thriving drug and prostitution trade, which I would have liked to have known more about since I didn’t know how that would survive in a slave-society like the one depicted in the book. I was especially fond of the temple chef who’s blind eye to the evils within was even worse than the actual participants in it.

So is Faithless worth your time? I think so. The first two thirds of the novel are exceptional. I felt the world-building and detail going into the Forgemaster’s faith as well as life in the minds was well-handled. The characters are, at times, unlikable but that’s a good thing if you’re trying to avoid traditional fantasy cliche.

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