“Rinsed to pallid gray under a scud that showed no sign of lifting, the dismal morning belied the notion an exalted presence ever had trodden this desolate vista or danced to the mystical harmony of the sunchildren’s crystalline flutes. The miasma of dank moss and earth clogged the air and shrouded the delicate scent of furled primroses. Hope ebbed under daylight, that the inherent perils of an unsanctioned trespass posed sufficient threat to deter the league’s murderous interests. One step to the next, through scrub brambles and wire grass, their clumsy flight seemed an act of futility.”
Few books, especially few books that are this short in length, are capable of bringing me to tears more than once during the entire reading.
Janny Wurts’ plaintive, stunning, glorious novella, “The Gallant” was definitely one of those rare books.
It tore at my sensitivities in a way that was so astonishing and deeply emotive that I will remember this book, forever.
Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this novel directly from the author in exchange for an honest review, which I have provided here.
This novella first appeared in the anthology, “Secrets & Spells: 6 Fantasy Novels”. To the best of my knowledge, this anthology is no longer available for purchase via nominal means (i.e. on Amazon, etc.), however can be bought (only in ebook format) directly from the author on Wurts’ website https://www.paravia.com/JannyWurts/in… .
This approximately 100-page novella is set in Athera, the primary world that is the setting for Wurts’ seminal work, “The Wars of Light and Shadow”, and I consider this book an excellent prequel to that main series, and a great way to get a taste of Wurts’ fabulous writing, in a smaller dose than the primary books in the series, which consists of eleven novels, averaging about 200k words each, divided into five separate arcs.
“The Gallant” is set approximately six and half centuries prior to the events of “Curse of the Mistwraith”, which is the first installment in “The Wars of Light and Shadow”. Most significantly, the time period covered in “The Gallant” encapsulates a two year period following the initial geas of the eponymous bane on existence from “Curse of the Mistwraith”.
The novella centres around Verrain sen Dient, the renowned Gallant of Shand, but a minor character from the main series. Verrain, at the time of the novella, is a tradesman, and highly skilled swordsman, who appears to be a bit of a philandering rake to many, on the outside, known for his many dalliances.
But one of his trysts turns serious. He falls hard for minor noblewoman Lisianne, who returns his feelings with matching ardour. The two become quite taken with one another, in a very short time. But sadly for Verrain, he is at the centre of a devious plot involving the throne of Shand, that will change the lives of both lovers, forever.
Against the humongous and daunting backdrop of the Mistwraith’s sinister, magical imposition, looming large over all Athera, the tragic love story of Verrain and Lisianne will play out, with major implications for the entire world.
The character work done by Wurts in this short work is wondrous, truly prodigious. The two main characters, Verrain and Lisianne, are so much more than they initially appear. Verrain’s sense of honour, courage, chivalry, and ultimately his deep and abiding love for Lisianne, who would seem to be (physical appearance-wise, despite her attractiveness) not up to his usual standard of romantic partner, adds to illustrate that he is far from a superficial dandy.
Lisianne was my favourite character, and her pragmatism, unerring, obstinate devotion to Verrain, altruism, and combination of inner beauty and outer appeal, dazzles. She is the kind of partner anyone would want: selfless, passionate, intelligent, thoughtful, kind, and so much more. She is intrepid, and faces the impossible challenges she confronts in the book with bravery, persistence, and integrity.
The secondary characters are absolutely wonderful. The gruff, taciturn Sethant, the valiant and faithful Edlie, in particular, and their arcs, shattered me. Wurts draws characters, no matter their affiliation, flaws, or virtues, that one will care about, deeply, and the skill she displays with doing this is masterclass. Wurts puts her characters through absolutely visceral pain and turmoil, and as the reader, you will hurt right along with them. Be warned. Have the Kleenex box ready.
In terms of themes, as noted above, love, sex, pleasure, pain, devotion, along with betrayal, bereavement, devastation, and pathos and so much more are part of this novella. There is a savagery and a contrasting beauty to what happens to the characters, and the topics Wurts’ presents to the reader, never allowing us to look away from the grace and blessing, along with the simultaneous harshness and cruelty of life and its varying circumstances. It is all enthralling, deeply inward feeling, and unforgettable.
With the worldbuilding being of Athera, but outside the main series, it allows some fascinating backstory, pre-Curse, of the universe Wurts has created for “Wars of Light and Shadow”. Reading “The Gallant” should only enhance one’s immersion into the main series. Reading the novella should also increase one’s comprehension of the grander political stage of Athera, the rivalry and intricacies of the Townbred versus the Clans, the intervention (and interference) of the Fellowship of Seven Sorcerers and the Koriathain Sorceresses in the fate of Athera, and the true impact of the mysterious Paravians on the land.
Here I feel compelled to add a note about the Paravians. For some of those who are reading the seminal “The Wars of Light and Shadow”, it may seem at times that the Paravians – especially in the early parts of the series – seem a remote, detached historical fact.
Something in the shadows of antiquity, whose presence still looms, but we don’t truly FEEL their presence as much as we could, because they’re not what we THINK they are, and not WHERE we think they are. I am not far along in the main series to truly grasp the entirety of this myself. However the hints Wurts has been dropping are starting to germinate, and I am slowly starting to SEE. And what I’m seeing is incredible.
Thus, one theme that permeates “The Gallant”, for those who have read “Wars of Light and Shadow”, is that history can be misconstrued and misinterpreted from the lens of present-day, and that the constant reiteration and restatement of certain narratives about the past can distort what truly happened.
The novel is fast-paced, and SO much happens in about 100 pages. The characters live in a near-constant threat of danger from Still, in typical Wurts fashion, there is a LOT to unpack.
Now, my sixth book read by this outstanding author, my counsel to the reader is simple: slow down.
If you rush, one can lose oneself in the density of the beautiful, lyrical prose, the crucial details mentioned almost nonchalantly, either buried within dialogue or exposition, the geopolitical implications, etc. So slow down, don’t rush, appreciate and savour the writing, and you will pick up on things you might otherwise overlook.
The good news with reading “The Gallant” as one’s first entry into the world of Athera, is that it’s not too overwhelming at all, that newcomers will not be overwhelmed with the scope that is “The Wars of Light and Shadow”, while being better prepared to tackle the level of depth that the main series provides.
The style of Wurts’ writing can provide a potential obstacle for readers. It is dense, lush, and extremely detailed. It also features some of the most beautiful prose one will find in fantasy, anywhere. The excerpt I provide at the start of this review is an example. You will be spellbound, but it will, at times perhaps leave you in a stupor.
“The Gallant” sets some of the foundation for major plot points, conspiracies, and supernatural perils that one will find in “The Wars of Light and Shadow”. But this tale is as autonomous, and it is a dark, gut-wrenching, yet hopeful love story, with incredible characters, that will linger with you, long after you finish it. The emotional impact of this story wrecked me, and I loved it.
Another exceptional book by Janny Wurts, whose eminence, for me, has already joined the Eriksons, Hobbs, Martins, and most celebrated living fantasy writers of our time.