Friday, January 16, 2015

The Iron Ghost - Jen Williams

I was a big fan of Jen William’s first book, “The Copper Promise”; it was a rollicking fantasy adventure, with magic, dragons, swords and sarcasm. It didn’t take itself too seriously, and yet still had a lot of emotional depth, and some genuine conflict that made for great reading. So my expectations for the sequel, The Iron Ghost, were understandably high.

I’m happy to report that those expectations were met. 

The dynamic trio of Wydrin, Sebastian and Frith return for this instalment. From a plot perspective, they start off, as in the previous novel, doing what sounds like a straightforward piece of mercenary work for rather a lot of money. As ever, the job turns out to be less than straightforward, and rapidly spirals out of control – the pace picks up and the stakes rise with every page. 

There’s some interesting choices of focus throughout the text:

There are a series of flashback chapters interspersed throughout the text, focused on Sebastian, largely dealing with the consequences of his actions at the close of The Copper Promise. Not to give much away, these explore Sebastian in the role of ‘father’, rather than as the tortured blade of the preceding text – and give his character a wider range of emotional depth and response than previously – expanding on an already well described character, and taking them out of the comfortable definition from the first book. 

The text also feels like it has a far stronger focus on Frith than the previous volume – or at least, it seems like he gets the most ‘screen time’. The arrogant Lord of the first volume is still present here, but over the course of the text he changes – deeply, if not dramatically. Again, not to provide spoilers, the character works well as a contrast to one of the villains of the piece, the reader presented with a living dialectic on the benefits and price of power – and how far people will go to achieve their goals. As one of the central pillars of the text, Frith’s relationships and character arc here is really well done, and a pleasure to read – even when it delves into some dark places and knotty problems. 

Wydrin, who felt to me like the epicentre of the original book, gets slightly less time here. She’s reliably entertaining. Smart, funny, inclined to run about and stick her nose into interesting situations. She’s the catalyst for the other two, and for the plot, quite a lot of the time. It feels like she develops less than the other two characters through the course of the text, but there are some interesting revelations, and the Copper Cat certainly doesn’t stand still throughout! 

I won’t spoil the plot, except to say that it takes places across whole new swathes of the world that Williams created – spaces quite unlike those she presented before, but drawn with a brevity and skill that gives them to the reader as visions, from claustrophobic cells to icy citadels and mountainous vistas. But the central core of the text carries a lot of emotional weight, and the characters always feel like they’re running against the clock, and playing for high stakes.

The original “Copper Promise” was a breath of fresh air, and The Iron Ghost takes all of the themes that made that first novel so interesting, and expands upon them excellently. Very much worth the read.

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