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