The Ninth Rain, [The Winnowing Flame #1] by Jen Williams

Title: The Ninth Rain (The Winnowing Flame #1)
Author: Jen Williams
Publisher: Headline
Release date: 23rd February 2017
Rating: ★★★★★

29758013The thing about Jen Williams is that she gets it. In the same way that any artist needs to know all the rules of their art intimately, in order to then bend or break those rules, Williams is so intimate with the genre of true, classic fantasy that she likely meets it in the pub for Sunday lunch and sends a card at the holidays. She knows exactly what she’s doing when she crafts these incredibly familiar worlds with almost-but-not quite familiar characters, only to then turn everything on its head and throw all expectation out the window. And she’s very good at it.

Another thing about Williams is that she writes in worlds that really ought to appear so cliché and dated that the words hang off the page in tatters and dust puffs up with every turn. In fact, the worlds she crafts are both gloriously familiar and excitingly fresh, clean and new: we’re never re-reading old “golden age” fantasy ground with Williams—even if, for a moment, we would be forgiven for thinking we are. The thing about this is that we get that cosy hot-chocolate-by-the-fire feeling that’s almost nostalgia for all the classic kinds of fantasy we thought had since been usurped by newer, reimagined fare, yet without any of the dowdy old tropes and generally completely of date nonsense we put up with without knowing there was an alternative. There won’t be any wailing damsels and certainly no chainmail bikinis or armour that is as ineffective as it is silly. Instead we have intelligent, queer (!) black women tromping around the woods, going about the business of being scholars and adventurers. Even the cliché of the womanizing rogue is bashed soundly on the head and left back in the decade from whence it came, and in its place, we have an updated elf-like almost-warrior who’s just enough of a dandy to know how the hell to dress (and to care about his appearance), but lacking in the other cliché of the useless fop who contributes very little outside of someone to laugh at for his lack of Traditional Masculinity.

After the stunning finale to the Copper Cat trilogy, which both tied everything up nicely as if with a ribbon, at the same time as leaving the vast stage open for our heroes to continue on thereafter, I was excited to delve into a whole different world and meet the new denizens of William’s very vivid—and very fun—imagination. The Ninth Rain does not disappoint.

We’re whisked away to a world we see in glimpses, where war stretches back through its long, bloody history and although the level of civilization and resulting technology is on its way to impressive, much of this is contained to walled cities and safe spaces upon which the overgown and worm-touched Wild does not encroach. Those who choose to live out in the Wild do so at great risk and most elect for the safety of cities and towns—anywhere the Wild hasn’t yet spread. But the Wild is spreading, slowly but surely, and this is what (among other things) prompts our wine-making scholar, Vintage, to set off from her family’s very wealthy vineyards in search of answers. What she doesn’t count on is getting entangled with a runaway witch from the infamous Winnowry, who might hold part of the answer Vintage has been looking for.

As for Tormalin the Oathless, even traipsing around the Wild with Vintage has got to be better that what he left behind at home: sickness and the slow and dusty decay of his people. No thanks—Tor would rather leave Ebora and keep on walking, and he has very little intention of looking back. Except Tor isn’t as good at pretending he’s done with Ebora as he thinks and whether he likes it or not, Ebora isn’t done with him. In fact, what he and Vinatge find out in the Wild might just change everything for the home he left behind. Tor isn’t the rogue some readers might expect, and neither is he the brooding, manly man-man warrior of total manliness who mans about doing his man thing. Even with his experience at the House of the Long Night, he absolutely is not That Guy; that wine-and-women dude. He’s more–so much more. And of course he is: because it’s Williams who wrote him and she nails him every bit as much as she nailed Frith and Sebastian.

The Ninth Rain fair sings off the page when reading and even the unusual and, let’s be fair, generally yuck and ick details of worm people and wandering, rampaging ghost plants, are conveyed clear as crystal and in with such an expert hand that, not for one moment, does the notion of said wandering ghost plants sound even a little silly.

Everything about The Ninth Rain cries classic fantasy, from the questing heroes to the fate of the world hanging in the balance. We even have an elfy, ethereal race gifted with longevity and beauty. Cue the forbidden magic that’s little understood, inextricably attached to a dodgy cult and the dutiful runaway with the dark past and we have precisely what’s needed to get very comfortable in that sepia-tinted Good Old Fantasy that brought us here in the first place.

But because this is Jen Williams The Ninth Rain is old fantasy all dressed up new and shiny and with only the good things left in, with all the dated and dodgy tropes drop-kicked into space. As usual, we’re invited to a diversely populated fantasy world that is engaging, exciting and written with complete abandon and no self-consciousness to be seen.

In others words, The Ninth Rain is peak Williams and if we learned anything from The Copper Cat it’s that from here, the bar is only going to get higher and higher. I have no doubt that when it does, Williams will step up her game and vault over it again and again.

Basically Williams’ The Ninth Rain is a shining example of just what modern fantasy can be and do. You need this book.

The Silver Tide [The Copper Cat #3], by Jen Williams

Title: The Silver Tide (The Copper Cat #3)
Author: Jen Williams
Publisher: Headline
Release Date: 25th February 2016
Rating: ★★★★★

25863014Jen Williams is at it again. She’s only gone and—yet again—written an utterly perfect book, hasn’t she? It’s no secret how much I love the Copper Cat books (see? And I told you so), but finishing a series is always where things get a little trickier. How will it end? Will she nail it? What if it’s not as good as the others and I’m left with a gaping void with no more Wydrin to fill it?

All very good questions.

Thankfully, being the absolutely stellar author she is, Williams brought the stories of the Black Feather Three to an end with all the deft skill of someone who can’t possibly be just about to launch the final book of her first trilogy. Impossible. There must be shenanigans, because she’s too good.

And she’s good because she gets it. Gets what, you ask? Well, that would be everything. If we’re being technical, the Copper Cat books are inclusive, feminist, and diverse. They’re also what you’d get if you bottled joy, the laugher of unicorns and the sound of a cat’s purr and distilled it all down into an uncannily regular-looking ink and proceeded to print the books with that—and spilt a little mead on the page before binding. (They use special, virtual unicorns for the ebooks.)

The Silver Tide has a lot to do as part of the trilogy, in that it has several characters and their individual story arcs to bring to a close, as well as presenting a whole new adventure for the finale, as is the MO of the Copper Cat books. We’re used to being treated to a front-seat ride as tagalongs on a brand new adventure with each book. It had to be good. It had to be big.

So we have our biggest adventure yet, new additions to the cast (and in the shape of a certain redhead’s mother, no less!), and we’re casting anchor towards previously unexplored lands in this vast world of magic and the remnants of old, leftover gods. Our Black Feather three still carry the scars from their previous adventure, but this time, some run deeper than others. Whilst Wydrin and Frith accept their relationship and grow closer, Sebastian, troubled by his link with the Brood Sisters and their ilk, sinks deeper into himself. And following the events of The Iron Ghost and his work with Joah Demonsworn, Frith’s gaze is cast ever inwards, to the darker parts of himself he has begun to fear so intensely. Needless to say, when Devinia the Red suggests a job for the Black Feather Three, eager to return to the normalcy before the business of waking gods and the power of mages, Wydrin is all too eager to accept.

The thing about Williams is that she knows fantasy. It’s like some percentage of her blood is made up of actual fantasy or something, which is probably why she can, in a way that seems totally effortless, invite the new, the classic and the more fantastical whimsy of SFF together on the page and make it shine. Make it all play nicely together with only minimal hitting over the head with plastic swords. There aren’t many writers on my shelves who really go there with the classic elements of fantasy—its monsters and big, flashy magic and incredibly unlikely happenings and whatnots. There’s a self-consciousness that slipped into fantasy somewhere, as if realism and accuracy were the new goals rather than whatever fantastical, exciting madness the writer could dream up.

Williams does not suffer from this. Williams writes her wonderful, unlikely and bold fantasy as if she either completely missed the self-consciousness memo, or rather, simply tossed it in the bin whilst swigging mead and cackling gleefully over the keys as yet another god flies over the page.

The Silver Tide is not a book afraid of adventure and of going out with a bang. The stakes are higher than they have been—the highest possible!—and yet at its heart, the Copper Cat books are really just about friendship, possibility and finding oneself. The Black Feather Three have faced practically everything known to man throughout the trilogy, including the darkest and most buried aspects of themselves—and they’re still not done.

Ultimately, Williams writes about people and what they get up to when left to their lives, going about their usual business—until they screw up (however indirectly) or get dragged into something bigger than themselves, and need to make a decision: to give a damn or to not give a damn. And the additional question that follows: now what?

Relatable characters and understandable issues. Power and responsibility. Hope and trust and loyalty and friendship. Fear of the other and acceptance. Self-acceptance and forgiveness. From the Brood Sisters, to the cold-skinned Narhl, to demons and possessed children and banished knights cast out for loving the wrong way, to headstrong redheads with mothers to impress and a fear of needing someone, to damaged young lords with a fear of an inner darkness and pirates who could have made better decisions about where to loot—The Silver Tide, as with the whole trilogy, goes deep into the very hearts of people and what makes people, people.

Ye gods, as Wydrin would say—what else is there to say that isn’t simply “read this book—read all these books”? The future of fantasy is in these books: here, writers like Williams nod in respectful homage to all the things that made fantasy good and exciting and full of joy and fun and even a little unlikely, whilst writing for the world we have now, taking and adapting all these classic ideas and welcoming them into a new era of fantasy. We can have dragons and gods and pirates on the same stage as feminism and bold, obvious stands against toxic masculinity. We can subvert gender and sexuality and romance. We can have cross-racial romance and treasure-hunting pirates. We can have everything without one needing to yell louder than the other(s) to be heard.

Williams says we can have it all. And I believe her.

The Silver Tide isn’t just a gloriously riveting adventure, filled with dragons and pirates, magic and gods, it’s also setting the bar for other fantasy that follows. Fantasy is so broad a thing, so vast a collection of anything and everything that we need to stop writing and reading inside these invisible little boxes that came free with the memo Williams disregarded. Fun and fantastic and yes, spattered with just a touch of (the best kinds of) whimsy, The Silver Tide and its trilogy companions are deep, thoughtful and intelligent; they are books to make you feel and to make you think, and not least of all, to make you laugh out loud and do those little fist-pumps in the air.

 

 

The Copper Promise, by Jen Williams [#1]

Title: The Copper Promise (#1)
Author: Jen Williams
Publisher: Headline
Publication date: 13th February 2014
Rating: ★★★★★

18667112The Copper Promise isn’t a good fantasy novel that demonstrates expertly how epic fantasy should be approached and handled in a modern and inclusive sense—it is a killer of a fantasy novel that is indicative of how the classic genre of sword and sorcery is not only still very much alive, but also still the best the genre has to offer. Williams’ debut novel is stellar, proving that regardless of how much progressive experimentation there is within a genre and how far it stretches its branches from the centre of the tree, the roots, the trunk, the boughs closest to the heart of the tree can—and do—still bear the choicest of fruit.

And The Copper Promise is some fruit.

This book will take you places—in fact, it will take you all around the world and back again. With a freshly woken god bent on destruction and a job gone south very quickly, the Copper Cat of Crosshaven will have to do more than just fulfil the “copper promise” in order to set things right. With former Ynnsmouth knight, Sebastian, by her side as usual, as her literal partner-in-crime, Wydrin thinks this newest gig will be over soon enough and then they’ll be nursing a pouch of gold coins, saying goodbye to the uptight Lord Frith and settling down for a well-deserved pint. But the history Lord Aaron Frith is carrying is heavier than either Wydrin or Sebastian could guess and soon they will find themselves just as entangled in his plight for revenge as Frith himself. Pitting themselves against magic and skill and the fearful man behind all of Lord Frith’s torment, they will have their work cut out.

And that’s not even mentioning the newly awakened god, bent on destruction and death. And gods that happen to be dragons are not the kind easily reasoned with. Hungry for blood and death and with a brood army at her back, things are not looking good. How exactly do you kill a dragon—how exactly do you kill a god?

With the magic of the mages gone from the world, trapped in the very same citadel in which the gods were imprisoned, there doesn’t seem to be much hope. But something must be done, and soon, because the brood army is on the march and its skilled warriors leave no survivors behind.

And yet what if there could be a divide in the brood army itself? Could there be hope? And if there was a mage left in the world, would there be a chance of defeating Y’Ruen and her green-skinned, golden-armoured brood?

But ifs won’t kill a dragon, and someone has to. Only, how is it possible to survive the proximity of a death-bent god, let alone kill it?

Wydrin and co. will have no choice but to find out. And quickly.

Reading this book felt like reading a Dragon Age adventure: I could practically see the locations, the cut-scenes, the encounters, the NPCs, the dialogue, the quest markers—everything. And let me just make this clear: this is a good thing. I love Dragon Age. In fact, it’s practically the only video game I still play, so that’s saying something. But something about The Copper Promise had me hooked from the very beginning. It wasn’t just the expert writing, the gorgeous development of character and subtle inclusion of differences to the norm, or the way in which Williams brings to life a vast, deep and varied world populated with real denizens that made this book just so unputdownably excellent—but they certainly helped. Overall it was the sense of completely confident plotting, pacing, and sense of unashamedly pure homage to classic sword and sorcery that made this book a contender for “Leo’s favourite book ever”.

I said, some time ago, in a review for Spellwright by Blake Charlton, that “classic fantasy will never die”—and The Copper Promise is just the sort of book that further adds to that sentiment. It felt unashamedly good to delve into a world inhabited by gods and monsters and knights and rogues and mages. I started reading fantasy for precisely all these things; when I write, I write about these things. Fantasy is many things, but before it was anything at all, it was this.

Williams is an astoundingly exciting writer in that there is an energy to her prose that makes it come alive. I expect that she will become an inspiration, her energetic and solid prose becoming a go-to reference as to how to write damn good fantasy and how to move so naturally away from everything that earlier fantasy giants’ work lacked. There’s homosexuality, there’s racial differences, religious variety—and none of it is shoehorned or set on a pedestal for exhibition. It is subtly woven into the tapestry of Williams’ world just as it is into real life. This is precisely how it should be, and Williams gets boatloads of kudos for knowing how to do this right.

So: kudos.

What I loved most about The Copper Promise is its host of perfectly imperfect characters that at once pay homage and raise their hats to the old mainstays of fantasy—the rogue, the knight, the mage—whilst simultaneously switching up everything you ever thought you knew about these stereotypes. I’ve talked before on Fantasy Faction about homosexuality and the desire to see a gay knight with honour and stuff and boom! (It’s the mildest of spoilers, but implied from the beginning (imo) so there’s no harm done.) Williams delivers.

The Copper Promise is the kind of book I didn’t want to end. I don’t reread books, so once a book is done, it’s done. But damn, I wish I did—because this would be the first. From page four or five I was garbling to anyone who would listen about just how excellent a story it is and how they simply must read it. By the halfway point…I could talk for hours. This is one of those books I had a hunch about. Sometimes these books are—ironically—the books I don’t seem to float in the right circles to blag an ARC of, and so have to gnash at my nails, awaiting publication day. I don’t even care by this point, because this book was just so astronomically brilliant that I’d have probably trekked from here to Timbuktu to acquire it. And with fibromyalgia, that’s quite the statement.

I want more of precisely this brand of fantasy; I want people to write it so I can read it and I want to write it so people can read it, and thus the karmic cycle of bloody epic, epic fantasy can continue ad infinitum. I can’t express more than I already have just why you should read this book—only that you should. From the clever little nudge-nudge-wink-wink moments where classic ideas and descriptions, back from when dinosaurs roamed the fantasy shelves, are suggested, only to be dismissed with a snigger or a rude word from Wydrin, to the simple normalcy of family loyalty, the notion of life before or between the next adventure, and strong friendship everything feels so well-tuned, well-oiled and set together so skilfully that Williams should—and will—be writing comfortably in the genre for the rest of her life.

And if not—I want to know why.

Because she rocks. (I’m going to stop pretending to have sensible, clever things to say now, mainly because I just want to fanboy a bit and do a bit of ‘shipping. Excuse me.)