[Review] The Bitter Twins, by Jen Williams

❧ Title: The Bitter Twins (The Winnowing Flame #2)
❧ Author: Jen Williams
❧ Publisher: Headline
❧ Publication date: 8th March 2018
❧ Rating: ✦✦✦✦✦
The Ninth Rain has fallen, the Jure’lia have returned, and with Ebora a shadow of its former self, the old enemy are closer to conquering Sarn than ever.

Tormalin the Oathless and the Fell-Witch Noon have their hands full dealing with the first war-beasts to be born in Ebora for nearly three hundred years. But these are not the great mythological warriors of old; hatched too early and with no link to their past lives, the war-beasts have no memory of the many battles they have fought and won, and no concept of how they can possibly do it again. The key to uniting them, according to the scholar Vintage, may lie in a part of Sarn no one really believes exists, but finding it will mean a dangerous journey at a time of war…

Meanwhile, Hestillion is trapped on board the corpse moon, forced into a strange and uneasy alliance with the Jure’lia queen. Something terrifying is growing up there, in the heart of the Behemoth, and the people of Sarn will have no defence against these new monsters

34382847When it’s time for a new Jen Williams book, I know it’s also time that I start finding absolutely any excuse to read. Time slipped-in wherever it will fit, reading on my phone and my Kindle and over lunch, while working out–any time I find to open the app and read, read, read. And it happens systematically, because Williams’ books are systematically good. Except not good – but amazing. Between her talent for fantastical enemies and high-rising stakes, her real and multi-layered characters, and the sheer amount of fun her books are, Williams has long been one of my favourite authors. It began with The Copper Promise, and each time she writes a new book, she continues to deliver.

The brilliant thing is that Williams ticks all the  boxes without even trying. When I pick up a Jen Williams book, I already know what I’m going to find. Witty, enjoyable banter between “party members”? Check. Fantastic monsters and/or bad-tempered gods? Check. High-fantasy stakes with humour, adventure, and heart? Triple check. Diversity…? Check.

Between queer rep standing squarely on the stage next to the straight romances and a (queer) black female main character, it seems that Williams understands perfectly that fantasy’s days of being straight, white and overbearingly masculine (in a toxic fashion, at least) are numbered. This isn’t new: we had diversity throughout The Copper Cat trilogy and, knowing Williams’ view of so-called Golden Age male “power fantasy”, it was very unlikely we’d see a back-pedal from this in her latest trilogy. Straight off the bat (ha! Literally, if you’re Noon) in The Ninth Rain we had inclusion on the page, and this is only continued as we move into The Bitter Twins, the middle book of the trilogy.

After the heated, twist of a climax at the end of The Ninth Rain, we’re dropped straight back into the action, introduced to the legendary war beasts that fell from the dead-tree god’s boughs. With the Jure’lia waking, their queen revealing herself, and the threat of yet another war on the horizon, the stakes are set high within the first few pages of the book. Between a more centre-stage role for Hestillion, her fate now seemingly in the hands of the enemy, and the new dynamics between war-beast and rider, there is never a dull moment as the story continues to unfold; the pacing fits well with this, really giving the impression that we are now at war. Though the conflict may just be beginning and there is much to be addressed, The Bitter Twins delivers chunks of high-adrenalin, high-stakes action, intermingled with moments of calm (albeit sometimes fraught with tension and conflict), where our heroes are given change to grow and think and react to the developing war.

And the war will happen, whether Ebora and the war beasts and the rest of the world is ready or not. But how can they be ready, with only a few war-beasts given up by the tree-god’s boughs and the Jure’lia and no fighting force to really speak of? Ebora has been a stumbling, fading ghost for far too long and few enough of them remain at all, let alone in the state to fight. It was always the war beasts before, and without them, the future seems uncertain.

A seed of hope presents itself in the form of a lost artefact made by one of Ebora’s greatest minds, but the problem with lost artefacts is the time needed to find said relic. Time of is of the essence, but still they must try, setting off on a mad journey to what seems like the edge of the world. The path is fraught with danger and with their forces split, Tor and Noon must hurry as best they can. Will they find the answers they seek, or only more questions?

Meanwhile, as Hestillion figures out how to survive, laying in the bed she’s made herself, Aldasair and Bern embark on a journey of their own, leaving the heart of Ebora undefended. With chaos unfolding and the future uncertain, there may be more than just the danger of the Jure’lia for our heroes to face, since in times of war and hardship, is when people show their true colours.

As expected, The Bitter Twins doesn’t disappoint in the least, easily hitting that sweet-spot of a trilogy’s second book whilst delivering well-paced action, hilarious banter, and ever-growing stakes that make for an exhilarating ride. It seems with each book, Williams just keeps getting better. The bar is set very high for The Poison Song, the third and final book of the Winnowing Flame trilogy, but if every other book Williams has written is anything to go by, you know that she’s going to sail over that bar and fly off on dragonback, cackling into the sunset.

Just read everything Jen Williams has ever written.  She is honestly just bloody fantastic.
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