The Silver Tide – Jen Williams

Jen Williams goes from strength to strength with The Silver Tide (recently published by Headline, who provided a review copy through NetGalley).  The Silver Tide is the final novel in her fantasy trilogy about the Black Feather Three – a group of old-school adventurers.

My earlier review deals with the first two books in the trilogy, and you might want to check it out if Jen Williams is a new writer to you.

The Silver Tide picks up the next stage in the adventures of Wydrin, Sebastian and Frith.  The Black Feather Three are hired by Wydrin’s mother, a notorious pirate.  She has a map showing the location of treasure in the centre of the mysterious island of Euriale, but needs help to navigate her ship up a narrow, winding river to reach it.  Overland routes aren’t an option, because anyone who sets foot on the island has a habit of disappearing.  But the crew of the Poison Chalice are being pursued by a rival pirate desperate to get her hands on the treasure and settle some old scores.

The Silver Tide is a rollicking adventure story full of all of the great things about the first two books.  It’s full of swashbuckling fight scenes, monsters, dragons, time travel, capricious gods, old friends, strange magical devices and a jungle full of secrets.  It’s a fitting end to this sequence of books about the Black Feather Three, giving a real sense of closure to their individual and collective stories.

Great fun.

Goodreads rating: 3*

The Dragon Engine – Andy Remic

Andy Remic‘s new novel, The Dragon Engine (Angry Robot, published 1 September 2015, review copy via NetGalley), aspires to be an old-school D&D style adventure story.

A group of seasoned adventurers come out of retirement, lured by the promise of treasure.  That treasure is not just the prospect of wealth beyond a person’s wildest dreams, but also a cure for the bone cancer afflicting one of the party.  But, inevitably, the treasure and the quest turn out not to be what any of the group expected.

My heart sank in the second chapter of the novel, when we were introduced to Skalg, one of the villains of the piece.  He’s an extremely unpleasant dwarf priest who has crawled his way up to the top of the Church of Hate (yes, really).  But Remic feels the need to bludgeon you with lazy and offensive tropes by making him physically deformed and having Skalg use his position of power to force a pretty and very reluctant junior priestess to have sex with him.  Repeatedly.  Rape in chapter two is never a good sign.  I finally gave up on the novel towards the end when sexual violence and threatened sexual violence were used yet again to ‘torture’ our heroes.

Not that the heroes are any better characterised than the villains.  Lazy and offensive stereotypes abound.  We are initially introduced to Dake, a classically dull as ditchwater hero, who is besotted with his wife Jonti.  Jonti is apparently dying from bone cancer, but seems in remarkably good health, able to engage in a physically demanding adventure and a lot of sword fights.  But it turns out that the real focus of the story is Beetrax, an axe-wielding oaf with an intermittent heart of gold.  He’s trying to get back together with his ex, a pacifist witch called Lilith.  Who’s a vegetarian (yes, really).  Despite her objections to all forms of violence she seems pretty happy to accompany a bunch of fighters on a dangerous quest.  The party is rounded out by a promiscuous gay guy called Talon, who conveniently becomes bisexual later in the novel so he can be paired up with the other member of the party, an exotic femme fatale called Sakora, who seems to think silk harem pants and bare feet are suitable clothing for going hiking in the mountains in winter.

The plot has holes you could drive a coach and four through.  For example, it’s never explained why the noble and heroic Dake would serve as Sword Champion to such an unpleasant ruler as King Yoon (Remic’s ‘subtle clues’ that Yoon is not a nice man include that he wears make up).  Surely a man of his principles would have mounted a coup at the earliest opportunity?  The remainder is predictable stuff.

If you like this style of book, then I’d recommend Jen Williams instead.  She’s head and shoulders above this nonsense.

Goodreads rating: 1*

The Copper Promise and The Iron Ghost – Jen Williams

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.

GoodReads ratings:

The Copper Promise – 2*

The Iron Ghost – 3*