[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.

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 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.)