Review: The Iron Ghost by Jen Williams

The Iron Ghost

Genre: Fantasy, adventure
Publisher: Headline
Publication date: February 26th 2015
This edition: eARC (NetGalley)
Formats: Paperback, ebook
Cover artist: Unknown

Notes: This book is the second volume in the Copper Promise series; this review may contain mild series spoilers.

Synopsis:

Beware the dawning of a new mage…

Wydrin of Crosshaven, Sir Sebastian and Lord Aaron Frith are experienced in the perils of stirring up the old gods. They are also familiar with defeating them, and the heroes of Baneswatch are now enjoying the perks of suddenly being very much in demand for their services.

When a job comes up in the distant city of Skaldshollow, it looks like easy coin – retrieve a stolen item, admire the views, get paid. But in a place twisted and haunted by ancient magic, with the most infamous mage of them all, Joah Demonsworn, making a reappearance, our heroes soon find themselves threatened by enemies on all sides, old and new. And in the frozen mountains, the stones are walking…

You know those books you read when everything else you’ve had to do is really stressful or tedious, and the world and characters between the covers of those books just instantly take you away and let you forget about all the crap for a while? You open it up and everything’s magic, and even though you’ll eventually have to close it again, life is a bit sparklier afterward because you read it. For me, this is the draw of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, and of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files – life and the world might getting you down, but here are the kind of people who poke it with sticks and give you a wink, and it really does help.

Now, two books into The Copper Promise series (a trilogy, if I’m not mistaken), I am all but certain I can add Jen Williams to that list. In my review of her first book I praised her writing for bringing good old-fashioned fun back to epic adventure fantasy, without bringing any of the tired old sexist baggage with it. Wydrin of Crosshaven is our strong female lead, and she embodies this in all of the best ways, thoroughly befitting a modern fantasy tale that just happens to have an epic, secondary-world setting. She’s the reason I laugh out loud when I’m reading these books, and I love her utterly for it.

Then there are her fellow adventurers. Aaron Frith and Sebastian Carverson are each the night to Wydrin’s reckless, saucy-minded day, but rather than any of them being outshone or shunted off to one side of the plot, the overall strength of all of Williams’ characters is that they can work well together and on their own. They carry the plot from point A to point B, but with each of them having a chance to tell their own stories and face their own troubles, that plot is wonderfully enriched along the way.

Another notion that Williams seems to have a firm grasp of is how to balance the fun with drama, because good grief, there is so much of it here. Under the snickering, eyebrow-waggling surface, this is not a lightweight kind of story, and the problems that each of these adventurers face, either together or apart, are not the kind you simply check off on a list when you’re done. Frith, in particular, goes through the emotional wringer this time around (as if all the torture that opened the first book wasn’t bad enough) – and without spoiling any of the plot, I have to say that the reasons he does so this time have melted my fangirlish little heart like it’s made of sugar and got left out in the rain. Put that together with the personal journeys undertaken here by Wydrin and Sebastian as well, and I am one hooked little drama-chewing bunny.

Then there are her bad guys. We get a new villainous face as well as a familiar one here, and I don’t want to say too much because of spoilers, but holy handbaskets, Batman. SO MUCH HANDBASKET. Joah Demonsworn is one terrifyingly cold bastard. And yet… He’s not entirely incapable of evoking sympathy, which is honestly making me wonder if there’s anything Jen Williams can’t do right here…

Flag-waving villains aside, and because she is apparently all about the balance, there are new faces in this book that had me scowling with the disapproving “damn it, humanity!” thoughts between the laughs and the dramatic gasps, and some returning characters who earn my applause on account of how interestingly un-villainous they’ve turned out to be. Again, I won’t get spoilery, but there is some real food for thought here regarding those dividing lines, and with good use of point-of-view switches, it’s all handled admirably.

This is how it’s done, quite frankly. If I was ever to find myself undertaking an epic quest, I’d want it to be one like this. (Though I do hope I’d know better than to attempt to drink Wydrin under a table.)

I have to sum up now, lest I simply ramble on forever about how fricking awesome this book is. I almost don’t want this trilogy to come to an end, and yet I cannot wait for part three. So, it’s very much like I said at the start – I have found a new source of comfort reading, and it is fabulous.

 

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