Friday, November 13, 2015

The Silver Tide - Jen Williams

The Silver Tide is the third entry in Jen William’s “Copper Cat” sequence. It follows the adventures of female mercenary and professional troublemaker Wydrin, along with her colleagues/frenemies Sebastian the knight and the rather cranky mage, Lord Frith. In the interests of full disclosure – I’ve been a fan of William’s work since her first in this sequence, “The Copper Promise”, and the second, “The Iron Ghost” was one of the first works I reviewed on this blog. They’ve been consistently  entertaining, fast paced works with some original ideas, vivid environments and characters who –in some cases literally – leap off the page. This trend largely continues in this volume.

The world of The Silver Tide is, broadly, the same as that of the preceding books. There’s an underlying mythos which has been sustained throughout, and is continued here: of gods turned vengeful, overthrown by human mages in an event of cataclysmic proportions. What remains is a world diminished by lack of magic, with a heritage of divinity and magecraft to live up to. It’s also a world which promises adventure to the first adventurer to run across a cache of magical items – at the same time offering the opportunity to run afoul of a variety of magical traps.

The Silver Tide approaches both of these themes in parallel, as Wydrin and her team set out to explore a mysterious tropical island, rumoured to hold something of incredible value at it’s heart – of course, no-one who set out to find the centre of the island has ever returned. The island Williams gives us is perhaps familiar to readers of Treasure Island; it’s a fetid swamp, filled with terrors. Each mis-step is likely to be fatal. Each glance into the undergrowth as likely to reveal a razor-toothed horror as a golden idol. Williams sets out to describe a place which is at once a paradise and a hell on earth; a place vibrant with life, most of which wants to dismember the protagonists. In that regard, she succeeds.  The island is as much a character as the individuals in the narrative – a truly hostile environment, which nonetheless seems to throb with life throughout the book.  The text also explores environs outside of the island, somewhere far stranger in fact – but to explore that would involve some spoilers. Let’s just say that this other locale is both exotic and utterly fascinating.

The characters – well, by this point, the Black Feather Three, as Wydrin, Sebastian and Frith are known – will be familiar to most readers. Still, there’s room for them to fill out further here. Frith’s insecurity and damaged state of being after the last book is accentuated, and the book doesn’t flinch away from him dealing with the consequences of his actions. The same is true of Sebastian, who is handling emotional trauma of his own.  Williams doesn’t let her characters get off scot free –and by making us aware that their actions have weight, have consequences, she invests us in them all the more, and makes us care about how they will deal with what happens after the adventure, as much as the adventure itself. Wydrin, as the central pivot, isn’t entirely immune from this either – she gets a long arc through the text on family relationships, and another around familiar themes with Frith. At all junctures, however, there’s a sense that the trio is, if not learning, certainly adapting to their circumstances, their attitudes to each other and the world altering over the course of the book. This organic development is delightful, and the way the characters shift is both believable and rather compelling.

The plot…well, as ever, avoiding spoilers. It’s in the common theme of the Copper Cat books however, in that it’s a fast-paced, swashbuckling piece of prose. Wydrin and company rocket through the book, leaping from emotional crisis to...less-than-emotional crisis. The stakes are high, and the consequences for failure, if at all possible, are worse than usual. Above all, this is a text which has a serious, rapid-fire narrative behind it, one which had me turning the pages desperately to discover what happened next – but is also not afraid to leaven that narrative with humour, sparks of laughter in the darkness. Williams has written an adventure novel of the highest order here – I was literally unable to put it down. It’s clever, the dialogue is both witty and interesting, and the plot makes some demands of the reader to follow along, but is never less than accessible and intriguing.

With that in mind – is it worth the read? Absolutely. I’d recommend reading the first two novels first – but this is a heartfelt conclusion to an excellent series.

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