‘The Ninth Rain’ by Jen Williams


Writing fantasy fiction is about asking ourselves, ‘What if?

When writing The Ninth Rain, I imagine Jen Williams asked herself much the same thing. What if Tolkien’s elves began to lose their immortality? What might happen if they The Ninth Rain by Jen Williamsrealised that drinking human blood could partially restore it? What if they then realised that the blood infected all who drank it with a wasting disease known as the Crimson flux – and that now their species is dying out faster than ever? What if witches were not only locked away, but their abilities exploited to produce drugs which their captors then deal and become rich?

As you may have gathered by now, The Ninth Rain is Jen Williams doing what she does best: traditional tropes with a twist. Like many aspects of her Copper Cat trilogy, the tropes in The Ninth Rain are recognisable, yet strange. For example: when Williams introduces the Eborans – an unnaturally beautiful, long-lived race who keep themselves separate from mere mortals – readers might roll their eyes and mutter ‘elves’. In a dark spin on the traditional, Williams takes the Tolkien-esque elves (and other wonders) and filters them through her own unique imagination. She then takes what’s left in the filter – the grit, the dirt, the uncomfortable, the bitter and the hard-to-chew – and mixes it with all kinds of unlikely ingredients with the experimental skill and competence of a chemist.

It was the Wild, festering behind gigantic walls. Enormous trees loomed over them, strange twisted things, their branches intertwining and spiralling around each other, as though they were blind and reaching out for their neighbours. Noon saw bark of grey, black and red, leaves of a diseased green , running with yellow spots. There were mushrooms too, bloated things like corpses left in the water too long, bursting from the trunks of the strange trees or erupting out of the black earth. It was already an overcast day, and dismal light within the compound was strained and jaundiced, almost as though it were an afterthought. A deep feeling of unease seemed to ooze from the deep shadows that pooled around every tree.

Atmospheric settings such as this form an eerily beautiful, almost sentient backdrop to the huge chunk of the book that’s focused on archaeology. Much of the plot revolves around the discovery and exploration of alien artefacts; this ‘treasure hunt’ is led by Lady Vintage de Grazon, who also happens to be one of the most engaging (and entertaining!) protagonists I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with lately. In fact, each of Williams’s three main POVs are portrayed in a very human way, so it’s easy to forget (despite consistent yet unintrusive reminders to the contrary) that Vintage’s companions are, essentially, a lich and a vampire-elf. On the flip side, infrequent glimpses into the minds of the antagonists remind us that so, too, are their enemies only human, and that regular people will do terrible things given sufficient motivation.laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

Someone much smarter than I am could probably write at length about the subtexts and deeper meanings running through The Ninth Rain; the theme of prejudice sustained with violence; of appearances vs. reality; of parasites, and the possibly unjustified stigma of consenting, symbiotic relationships between individuals, and between a planet and its population. Williams also layers her tale with metaphors for all kinds of things – sexual repression, hypocrisy, our responsibility to protect the natural world instead of destroying it – but she never throws it in your face. The fact that all these issues are brought up (if not dealt with) without sounding preachy is another huge mark in the author’s favour.

All in all, Williams has crafted a well-paced story set in a fascinatingly original world that foregrounds a small cast of diverse and irresistibly flawed characters. Though slow to start, The Ninth Rain is rarely less than compelling, and is unquestionably a strong introduction to the Winnowing Flame trilogy. Engaging and exciting, The Ninth Rain is Jen Williams at her absolute finest.

‘The Copper Promise’ by Jen Williams


The Copper Promise is a classic fantasy romp; a sword and sorcery tale of epic quests, fallen heroes, plucky sellswords and fearsome dragons.

The Copper Promise by Jen Williams (UK Cover)After unwittingly unleashing an ancient horror from a buried citadel (oops!), three unlikely heroes – noble Lord Frith (whose family were murdered and who himself was tortured after being overthrown by rivals); Sir Sebastien (an exiled knight with a troubled soul); and Wydrin (a sassy mercenary also known as the Copper Cat) – must seek out long-lost magic in order to atone for their bloody daft mistake and save the world.

Jen Williams’ story is a lot of fun. The Copper Promise is full of action and magic and just the right amount of grit and gore . . . and it’s entertaining enough to make you overlook certain instances of deus ex machina (need to travel somewhere in a hurry? Take these magical flying griffins!). Although several threads of the story are so contrived as to be reminiscent of quests in a Dungeons & Dragons game, the flighty pace and likeable characters (particularly Wydrin) make the reader more than happy to turn a blind eye.

The pacing of The Copper Promise does suffer a little bit from its uneven structure. As I understand it, the story was originally written as a series of four novellas; this version of the book is similarly split into four distinct sections. While this means for quite fast pacing and lots of exciting moments and mini-climaxes, it does make the final events of the book seem a little anti-climactic. (The wild chase through the skies, though very exciting, felt a little rushed.)

Most of all, though, it’s nice to read the first book in a series that can actually be read as a standalone. Far too many fantasy authors recently have cut me up with sudden and dramatic cliffhangers at the end of their books (I’m looking at you, Brian McClellan). The Copper Promise is refreshing in that it’s self-contained, and ends with a sense of resolution while at the same time inviting (rather than demanding) a sequel.

I’m currently reading Jen Williams’ latest novel, The Ninth Rain, and am massively impressed by the increase in quality. While I did enjoy The Copper Promise, I think I’d find it hard to return to the Copper Cat and co. now that I’ve sampled the Winnowing Flame trilogy… but who knows? The Iron Ghost has been sitting on my shelf for two years now, and perhaps its patience will be rewarded one day. Either way, a review of The Ninth Rain (released on 23 February 2017) will be appearing on this site very soon!lauramhughes-sig

Review originally published on halfstrungharp.com on 15 August 2014.

‘Herald of the Storm’ by Richard Ford


Comparisons to other authors can hurt a book rather than help it. Typically, readers draw parallels between Ford’s work and that of George R.R. Martin (though let’s face it, it seems rare nowadays for a fantasy novel to escape comparison to – or endorsement by! – ol’ GRRM). Richard Ford’s debut is no exception. However, aside from the structure (alternating chapters from differing points of view) and maybe a bit of the grittiness I wouldn’t personally make this comparison, partly because ASoIaF is something of a sweeping epic, while Herald of the Storm concerns itself entirely with the city of Steelhaven.

Stand together . . . or die alone.

The contained setting is, for me, the book’s strongest point. The plot is tight and pacy, and the ways in which several of the individual storylines were eventually interwoven was nicely done. There are two or three main plotlines occurring at the same time – an illegal slave-trading operation, a royal assassination attempt, and an act of dark magic – and it’s interesting to see how different characters are involved in each plot, and how each mini-plot becomes relevant to the bigger picture. In fact, the whole book does a nice job of laying the groundwork for the rest of the series.

I enjoyed the diversity of the characters: there’s Kaira Stormfall, morally upright Shieldmaiden of the goddess Vorena; Janessa Mastragall, innocent and headstrong heir to the throne; River, an assassin with a conflicted soul; Merrick Ryder, a former duellist and dandy who has fallen on hard times; Rag, a street urchin and pickpocket; Nobul Jacks, soldier-turned blacksmith-turned city guard; and Waylian Grimm, apprentice in the tower of magick (no, I’m not sure why it has to be spelt with a ‘k’ either). Although there are a fair amount of characters, the variety between them really makes it work.

Herald of the Storm by Richard FordThe author cleverly uses the novel’s form to keep certain things – e.g. the identity of certain characters – hidden until key moments. Ford uses alternating PoV chapters to gradually reveal surprising connections and illustrate the impact of characters’ decisions on others. I did feel that some storylines felt a little out of place: Rag’s story came to feel a bit irrelevant, and Waylian (and magick in general) also seemed somewhat shoe-horned into the story. However, the final chapters for these characters do seem to suggest that both will play a larger role in future novels.

A quick point about the language: I don’t have a problem with profanity in fiction, as long as the language fits with the character of the person who’s saying it. The author has created several less-than-golden characters here (many of whom swear frequently), and while they suit Herald’s grimdark tone the fucks and shits do become a bit tiresome!

Earlier, I mentioned the use of GRRM as a benchmark for modern fantasy novels. Fact is, I bought this book on the strength of its comparisons with Joe Abercrombie. While I can certainly see the similarities – character-driven storytelling, grimy characters, dirty deeds – Ford’s characters didn’t quite spring to life for me in the same way as Logen, Glokta, Monza et al., and I think this is another case of hurting a book by (unfairly) comparing it to another of a very high standard. One review raved that Herald of the Storm was actually much better than the First Law trilogy, and I couldn’t help being just a tiny bit disappointed.

However, unrealistic as my expectations were I still enjoyed the book a lot. The characters grew on me over time, and I look forward to reading Steelhaven #2: The Shattered Crown.


Review originally posted on halfstrungharp.com on 5th January 2017.