This post is part of the Hodderscape Review Project. Go look at what my project-mates think here! (They’re all clever folks, you’ll like what they say)
Jen Williams – The Copper Promise
The Copper Promise is a welcome look back in a world where the norm for fantasy is hulking behemoths filled with blood, sex and gore. That’s not to say the Jen Williams’ debut novel isn’t big – it’s fairly whopping at 530 or so pages in proof – nor that it doesn’t have its fair share of blood and thunder – it starts with a torture scene, and there are bloody battles aplenty. What it does to these, however, is infuse them with a sense of fun and adventure that is not as present in the more ‘realistic’ fantasy of the grimdark mode.
Wydrin and Sebastian are sellswords for hire, and hired they are by the crippled Lord Frith to explore The Citadel, a hulking building that dominates the city the live in. Split into four separate novella-sized parts (the book was originally self-published as a series of novellas, and Headline published each part individually on Amazon), we follow Sebastian, Wydrin and Frith as they basically balls up the Citadel, and end up unleashing an ancient God on the unsuspecting world.
Where Williams’ story really works is its depictions of its three characters. Each comes with their own set of issues, and the way they mesh together (or not) is a source of constant fascination. For a debut, she has a wonderful grasp of the ebb and flow of dialogue, and the elucidation of character through it. A particular favourite is Wydrin: spunky, fiery, a bit of a rogue, she is one of those characters who is both self-absorbed yet thoroughly likeable, ballsy and always with a quip to hand (think Locke Lamora, Tyrion Lannister). In a knowing nod to the history of fantasy literature, she is also a normal person, not half tits, half sword – there is a moment when Frith meets her and his comments show the old cliché to be idiotic.
While Frith and Sebastian pale in comparison to Wydrin, they are admirable support. Each has their complexities – Sebastian is honourable to a fault, and when that honour comes into conflict with his desire to do good, we see an excellent internal conflict in the latter half of the book. Frith is Sebastian’s polar opposite – selfish, obsessed with revenge, hell bent on getting it any which way possible. His character arc shows him slowly coming to terms with the fact that such selfish behaviour just makes you an arsehole. While these are well done, considering the books will be a trilogy (though standalone) one could ask that the arcs are too complete – does Williams’ have space for further self development in future titles?
The plot at times hardly seemed to matter – there’s a big bad, the ancient God in dragon form Y’ruen (who I’m reliably informed is simply a bad pun of ‘You ruin’), and our adventurers must chase around the world fixing their own shit before collecting the right amount of knowledge and equipment to defeat said big bad in a final, epic battle. This epic battle happens to be over far too quickly, and at time I felt that the way that the overarching plot was dealt with was a little hackneyed and already done. Yes, dragons are cool, and yes the lore surrounding magic is interesting, and yes, the final battle sounds good on paper, but there isn’t, to me, enough to make it last when reading. This is the kind of plot that would fill a whole trilogy in your average epic fantasy, though, and I applaud Ms. Williams for having the balls to squash it down and oh-so-nearly make it work.
The pace, throughout, is frenetic as a result of having to try and make this big plot work in a small space. The opening novella is basically an enhanced dungeon crawl, complete with set-piece rooms. This speed is one of the defining characteristics of what make Williams’ novel so fun. There is no navel gazing, no scene that are there just for the sake of it. It forces characters to be built through dialogue, through action rather than exposition. And it makes the book what it is – absolutely brilliant fun, and a no-nonsense modern take on classic sword-and-sorcery.