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Once Walked With Gods by James Barclay

Once Walked With Gods by James Barclay
Book Name: Once Walked With Gods
Author: James Barclay
Publisher(s): Gollancz
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: August 19, 2010

Once Walked With Gods, was perhaps one of the most raved about new series in 2010. Author James Barclay is indeed one of the most accomplished British authors in the genre and when you add his name to the word ‘elves’, perhaps it was inevitably going to be an intriguing novel.

James is most well known for his Raven novels, which earned praise in pretty much every fantasy blog/magazine going, as well as highly complementary blurbs from the likes of David Gemmell and Maggie Furey. If you haven’t read those though, do not worry – for Once Walked With Gods is a standalone novel that you don’t need to prior experience of Barclay’s work to enjoy. It is however set in the same world – all-be-it around 3000 years before the Raven series and on a completely different continent.

Back to why you should read it though!

When you first pick up Once Walked With Gods you can tell that there is something different about it. Straight away we are told that the big war has already happened, years ago in-fact. The elves had fought the demonic Garonin. It wasn’t exactly a resounding success though, seeing that it resulted in the death of around 100,000 of their own kind. At the final standoff, the elves’ leader Takaar, fled, went into hiding, and has played no part in the ruling of the race since.

The elves we meet are all very, very different. In addition to having their own motives and personalities, they have split themselves into threads depending upon which God they follow. It comes time when a number of individuals within the threads have had enough of Takaar’s representation of the elven race. He has completely disappeared and yet still people call him their leader.

Right, now, I’m going to try and take you a little bit deeper into the story, but stick with me – because it is kind of difficult to explain to you within a single paragraph. Barclay does a far, far better job over a few chapters

Basically, the main reason that Takaar has been left as ‘leader’ seems to be that his God Yniss also has the most powerful thread. Their elite warrior class, the TaiGethen, are basically too strong to stand up to and with them pretty much in charge anyway, the majority of threads seem happy with the current ‘peace’. However, things are not quite as rosy as they seem. One of the TaiGethen has sought the help of men (humans) and with them have come a number of Mages. Together, the elves could most likely destroy the humans with relative ease, however, it quickly becomes apparent that this single TaiGethen in fact has the support of numerous other threads…and highly influential people within them too.

There therefore isn’t really an outside enemy as such. The main war seems to be between the threads of elves and early in the book we can see that the humans are just pawns. Now, we must remember that the elves are very few in number following their earlier war, and to engage in civil war in such low numbers could quite easily end the race completely. A number of highly ranked elves recognise this and see the need to re-unite the elves with a figurehead. That figure head of course has to be Takaar. There’s a problem though, because when we catch up with Takaar just a few chapters into the novel, we find he is pretty much insane.

This idea of elves engaging in a civil war caused me great conflicts as a reader…in a good way. I was looking at one side of the argument ‘we need to unite’ and then the other side ‘we need to go our separate ways’ and could really see both sides. Would I willingly follow a leader who is seemingly insane and ran out on me? At the same time, could I really go into war knowing that even if I win, I have probably destroyed my race? If the answer to both of these is no, then what? I loved the fact that throughout the novel I struggled to choose a side; in fact, even at the very end of the novel I wasn’t able to choose a side because of the huge changes in direction and reveals of more characters.

Barclay’s ability to make the love-able characters love-able and yet still have us kind of supporting the baddies is a real talent, and as a reader will leave you constantly feeling involved and re-thinking your stance.

In addition to a fantastic plot, the writing is fantastic. I read this book in just over three days and that is fairly quick for me. The short chapters and to the point writing style of Barclay, will leave readers wondering why we have these 600/700 page novels. Elves in many ways has the complexity of a novel like A Game of Thrones and yet has slim-lined and packed it with action. The result is a novel that is a quick read and yet one you will remember. Few books seem able to do that these days; they are either quick and forgettable or lengthy and memorable.

One point I would like to raise and bring to the attention of people considering Once Walked With Gods, and a problem that Barclay himself mentions on his site, is ‘the depiction of elves’. We say elves and we think Tolkien. Sorry, that is just the way things are. Elves are pretty, pleasant and righteous…right? To write a book about elves that completely re-writes what Tolkien has almost set in stone is brave. To make them almost opposites of the race we saw in Lord of the Rings and pull it off is damned heroic.

Rise-of-the-TaiGethenIn Barclay’s work, we still see them as ‘elves’ and we do believe that they are of higher status than us mere-humans. (I love the phrase – Blink-Life – that refers to our short human life span when compared to their centuries of life). Yet, they are obviously pissed off, broken, brutal and seeking revenge. From now on, when people mention elves I think I will instantly reply, “What kind of elves? Are we talking Barclay elves or Tolkien elves?”

I think I’ve pretty much said all there is to say on how great the novel is. It’s readable, it’s thought provoking and it won’t feel like something you’ve read before. Book two is due out in February 2012 – sadly it was recently put back until then for whatever reason. Book one left me hopping onto Amazon and checking the date to pre-order though and I’m sure you’ll be doing the same once you’ve finished this one. Enjoy!!!



  1. Avatar kiwi365 says:

    I have been a fan of Barclays for years. I read the entire Raven series, they are amazing, so when this came out i was super excited. i was not disappointed, And i agree with you 100% Barclays Elves are dark and maybe just a little messed up, it makes them much more relatable. And i love that Auum is there from the Raven books (or before the raven books i guess) i am now eagerly awaiting the next in this series as i am sure it will be a stand out. If anyone hasn’t read the Chronicles of the Raven you should, do it, DO IT NOW!!!!!!!!!

  2. Avatar Taliesin says:

    “Broken, brutal and seeking revenge”? That sounds a lot like Tolkien’s elves to me – at least, the ones from the Silmarillion.

  3. Avatar Turambar says:

    agree with taliesin…. havent read this book yet but it definitely sounds like they are like the son’s of Feanor type elves.

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