Jen Williams’s second novel, The Iron Ghost, is published this Thursday (26 February 2015) and I was lucky enough to get an advance review copy through NetGalley. So it was a good excuse to dig out her first novel as well to see what all the fuss is about.
The Copper Promise reads as an homage to every hacky-slashy dungeon crawler RPG you have ever played. It is not a deep or nuanced read – it’s meant to be light and fun. You follow a band of adventurers as they kill everything in sight and collect lots of loot, including magic weapons and armour. It culminates in a high octane boss battle against a dragon.
The characters are straight from central casting: Sebastian, the mournful knight with a tragic past; Frith, the grumpy mage (channelling Weis and Hickman’s Raistlin from the Dragonlance books) and Wydrin, the feisty redhead with a large appetite for life. Despite this, they are endearing and the banter between them is tremendous fun and feels authentic. The story is very episodic – it’s pretty much one dungeon raid after another, and they occur largely because of coincidences and random encounters in bars. Lots of mead is drunk and stew is eaten. This is a modern take on old-school epic fantasy.
As you can probably tell, The Copper Promise isn’t really my favourite kind of book, and it suffers from many of the problems of first novels (light characterisation and world-building, an over-reliance on coincidence etc). But it’s tremendous fun and a good example of its style. There’s a lot to recommend it to those for whom this is their bag. For starters, it’s a lot more diverse than other books of its type. It has female characters with agency (and in one case a healthy sexual appetite) and passes the Bechdel Test (two named female characters having a conversation that isn’t about a man). It also has sensitively treated LGBT characters.
The Iron Ghost is a much stronger novel. The plot is more coherent, with a single narrative thread running through the book. Instead of a series of dungeon raids culminating in boss battles, our three adventurers are hired for a specific job. Only it transpires that they were hired on false pretences by an old adversary and have to deal with the consequences, making difficult choices along the way. This gives the novel a greater sense of pace and peril.
The characters have more depth than in the first novel too. We start to see them having to confront the consequences of their actions. There might not be much in the way of serious soul-searching, but there are difficult choices to be made and Sebastian and Frith both have to address the question of whether the ends justify the taking of otherwise unethical actions.
Like its predecessor, The Iron Ghost is a fun, fast-paced read. Only slicker and more polished. Great fun.
The Copper Promise – 2*
The Iron Ghost – 3*