There are some far-fetched rumours about the caverns beneath the Citadel. Some say the Mages left their most dangerous secrets buried there, some say the gods themselves have been imprisoned there. For Lord Frith the caverns hold the key to his vengeance, against all odds he has survived torture and the death of his family, and now someone has to pay. For Wydrin and Sebastian the quest into the Citadel is just another job, the promise of gold and adventure and the possibility of getting a good tale or two that will stand them drinks everywhere they go.
But sometimes there is truth in rumours. Sometimes it pays to listen, pays not to be a reckless adventurer. But Wydrin was never a good listener and soon this trio of adventurers will find themselves the last line of defence against a hungry, ruthless terror that wants to tear the world apart.
But worse than that, they’re not even getting paid.
This is a first for me, reviewing a book that is not even out yet. First a disclaimer, I’ve known Jen Williams via Twitter for a couple of years, I’ve followed her journey throughout the process that started with the novella The Copper Promise: Ghosts of the Citadel and culminated in the publication of this, her first novel.
There is a saying, “books are like the TARDIS, bigger on the inside”. Whilst this is true they are also like the Doctors ship in another way, they are capable of sending the reader back in time. I grew up in the 1970s reading about the adventures of Conan of Cimmeria, whilst my reading tastes may have moved on since, there has always been a special place in my heart for the style of writing Robert E Howard made all his own, his styling’s were my first taste of fantasy. In a way I can see something of Conan in the main character of this book, Wydrin, the Copper Cat of Crosshaven. They are both carefree in their attitudes to personal danger, both have a healthy interest in loot, both know how to use a blade. Wydrin may not be a tall brooding barbarian, but put her toe to toe with one and it would be a hard fight to call.
I not saying Wydrin is a carbon copy, Jen has created a strong and vibrant character, a character that has her own unique personality. Wydrin is the source of much of the humour throughout the story, she is a bottomless well of one-liners, put downs and endless enthusiastic mirth. But she also has an edge, as a daughter of Crosshaven she has piracy in her blood, and has no qualms about killing to defend herself. Wydrin is not your typical heroine, her interests lie firmly in creating havoc and getting blinding drunk.
Alongside Wydrin Jen has assembled a strong supporting cast. The steadfast Sebastian, a fallen Knight of Ynnsmouth, tall and strong, a stubborn mule of a man with principles that are at odds with the life he now leads. Sebastian is a conflicting character, a man who lives by a strict moral code whilst aiding an adventurer and thief. But despite being poles apart the bond between Sebastian and Wydrin is strong. Then there is Lord Aaron Frith, heir to the Blackwood throne who employs Wydrin and Sebastian to lead him into the Citadel of Creos in search of the ancient secrets said to be buried there. Frith initially is not someone you feel you can get close to. He’s a broken man, his family and home brutally taken from him, his life focused on vengeance and his pursuit of power he feels is his. But Frith – of all the characters – has the biggest character curve throughout the book, as piece by piece his shell is cracked away to reveal the man beneath.
The plot is a simple one. A theft leads to a hunt leads to a big battle. But it’s how these pieces are put together and moulded that makes this book such a thrill. At its core it is an adventure story, much like the early Conan stories. Within the pages of this book we get to see the world Jen has created through the eyes of her three characters. It is a big, breathtaking world full of wonders and horrors. It is a world that I hope is explored in greater detail in future books (this is the first in a trilogy). Along the way Jen also manages to expand on her characters, fleshes them out so rather than ciphers going through the motions, each and everyone of them has a purpose and a reason for being there. Amazingly as well she manages to incorporate a chase sequence, in a fantasy novel, a chase sequence unlike anything I’ve ever come across before.
As a fantasy novel this stands its own against any other book I’d care to put alongside it. As a debut fantasy novel it is a gem and breath of fresh air. Whilst the norm for fantasy now is grim, gritty and bloody – not a form of fantasy I’m knocking, I’m a massive GRRM, Abercrombie et al fan – this turns around and shines a light on how fantasy used to be written. It’s very retro in its prose and styling, a rollicking boys-own adventure with a feisty female lead who you definitely would not want to take home to meet your mother.
On my blog you will find my review for the original novella that grew into this novel, at the end of it I said that Jen Williams was a worthy successor to the pulp giants of the 1920s and 30s. I’d like to amend that comment and say that Jen Williams IS a worthy successor. With her fresh old/new style of fantasy storytelling she has hit on a winner, and I hope in some way will herald back into fashion this pulpy style that I so loved reading as a young teenager.
The Copper Promise is due for release February 14th 2014, but the first part – Ghosts of the Citadel – is currently available as an ebook. Jen can be found on Twitter @sennydreadful and on her blog http://sennydreadful.co.uk/