This review is based on a review copy provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.
I’ve dipped my toe into Janny Wurts’ catalog on a few occasions, reading the opening novels of The Empire Trilogy and The Wars of Light and Shadow and the excellent standalone epic fantasy thriller To Ride Hell’s Chasm. But with the TBR and my limited reading time both being what they are, I haven’t been able to dive headfirst into the sprawling epic that constitutes her magnum opus. And so when I was given the opportunity to read a Wars of Light and Shadow prequel novella, I was excited for the chance for some more bite-sized engagement in such a huge world.
The Gallant takes place 500 years before the main action of The Wars of Light and Shadow, and while series devotees are sure to be delighted by the expansion of series lore, it’s written to be accessible to those who haven’t read the rest of the series. Having read just one book, over a year ago, there were a couple names I recognized, but not enough to affect my engagement with the novella, either for good or for ill.
Instead, The Gallant tells a fairly focused story of love and betrayal, with very present dangers coming from both the natural and supernatural realms, and the connections with the remainder of the series mostly remaining subtext and background. A third-person universal narration provides glimpses into the minds of characters from various corners of the story, but the bulk of the narrative centers Lisianne, a fiercely loyal noblewoman who has shockingly caught the eye of the rakish—but gallant!—Verrain, despite the constant reminders that he is conventionally attractive and she is very much not.
If there’s one thing you need to know before picking up a Janny Wurts tale, it’s that her authorial voice demands concentration from the reader. She favors an ornate prose style that’s heavily descriptive and aims to transport the reader to a time and place with its own manner of speaking. But unlike someone like Robert Jordan—also known for the length of his epics and the detail of his descriptions—Wurts hides so much vital information in passages that may appear mere window dressing that it’s impossible to simply speed through and get to the meat of the story.
It’s a style that’s been difficult for me—a reader whose free time mostly has cartoons in the background and constant interruptions from small children demanding snacks or technological assistance—and it’s one of the reasons I haven’t yet pushed forward with The Wars of Light and Shadow. I simply think I’ll get more out of the series when I can find reading time that’s a little bit less chaotic. But even though her style remains unchanged, the bite-sized narrative of The Gallant makes for a much easier on-ramp than The Curse of the Mistwraith. There’s still plenty of worldbuilding in the background, and there are plot relevant snippets that can pass unnoticed by a reader who finds themselves trying to skim, but the main story is sufficiently focused that it’s easy enough to hold the main thread.
And that main thread makes for a pretty good story, with an extremely likable lead who finds an evening of romance interrupted by schemes that see her pulled deep into both political and supernatural crises—and sees her begin to fall in love besides. There’s danger from the opening chapter, and the dangers only multiply as the story progresses, with Lisianne drawn into a political maelstrom she’s prepared to navigate and a magical one that has her doggedly holding on for all she’s worth.
There are times where the ornate prose works against the flow of the story, as the style keeps the reader from galloping too quickly through even the most intense of scenes, no matter how many lives are hanging in the balance. But even so, it has absolutely no trouble keeping the reader engaged, with the character of Lisianne serving as anchor and center and the action swirling around her increasing the stakes and the excitement far beyond what was promised in the first half of the tale. It all leads to a powerful conclusion that tugs at the heart and provides closure for the characters, even as it lays groundwork for further action centuries down the line. There is one element of the ending that I felt hadn’t been fully set up, but it fit the story well enough, and there’s only so much foreshadowing one can do in a novella-length tale.
Overall, I found The Gallant to be well worth the read and an excellent introduction into the style of an underappreciated voice in epic fantasy. Doubtless it will prove an even richer experience to fans of the series, but the compelling lead and heart-pounding finish make it a great story for the uninitiated as well.
Recommended if you like: ornate prose, epic fantasy, big worlds.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Mental Health and Self-Published.
Overall rating: 16 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.