This book was sent to me as part of the Hodderscape Review Project.
In recent years I’ve had something of love-hate relationship with fantasy fiction. I grew up exclusively on a diet of fantastic fiction – all the classics, and I loved them all. Then when into adulthood, where I acquired unexpected things like a girlfriend, my fiction tastes changed. I still picked up and enjoyed the occasional novel, but fantasy was no longer the mainstay.
I still read fantasy, but too often I’ve found it derivative and frankly a little boring. I’ve said it a number of times on the blog, the advent of ‘grimdark’ novels and the ubiquitous use of hooded faces on covers has merely introduced a new set of clichés to replace the old. Worse, there is a tone of violent misogyny creeping in, which I find unsettling. Tolkien may not have had many women in his books, but at least nothing too unpleasant happened to any of them. The ‘gritty realism’ introduced in the last few years more often than not seems a flimsy excuse for rape and abuse. Yet they still sell by the bucket load. It’s depressing.
Maybe though, I’d been reading the wrong things. A number of fantasy novels I’ve read in recent months have passed over the old cliches whilst at the same time avoided their morally ambiguous character wanting to keep sticking his weapon into unsuspecting victims.
The Copper Promise is one such novel and a highly accomplished début by a fresh new voice. Jen Williams managed to evoke the excitement I found in the best Dungeon and Dragons sessions I played in, whilst delivering a a cast a great characters and a compelling plot.
The book is broken into distinct sections, the first of which is pure dungeon crawl. A legendary citadel, filled with fabled treasure. Three mercenaries want to break in and plunder its depths. Impatience and arrogance split the party (fools!) from the outset and the predictable disaster ensues. Another member joins the adventure – the cantankerous Lord Frith, a crippled noble deposed from his seat and tortured in the process. His bitterness and desire for revenge drive much of the novel’s plot. In seeking the treasure the three unleash an ancient evil and the rest of the novel sees them trying to put it back in the box.
The three central characters are what hold The Copper Promise together. Fallen knight Sebastian and fellow mercenary Wydrin, who has a fast sword and quicker tongue, are a great partnership. Frith, their single-minded and aloof employer makes a great foil for the pair and the triumvirate form a strong nucleus around which Williams constructs her story. The secondary characters are strong too, bolstered by Williams’ strong ear for dialogue (if an ear can be strong). The surrounding plot is packed full of ideas. Demons, magic and hidden gods. Conflicted knights, the walking dead and a wonderfully realised reptilian brood army.
The depiction of the serpent brood, the demon ‘Prince of Wounds’ and the subtle way in which these two get under the skin of fallen knight Sebastian are pitch perfect. The internal conflict within Sebastian is a contest more interesting than the plight to save the world. It gives rise to some of the finest character writing I’ve seen in fantasy fiction.
I loved this aspect of the plot so much it almost made the overreaching story arc of the destruction of the world seem superfluous. The ravaging of the landscape by the central villain feels heavy handed; like a sledgehammer compared with what has come before. The last section, where the ultimate bad guy is confronted, reads like a bolt on. Things certainly seem wrapped up in haste. I have to wonder whether it would have been better to do away with the central villain altogether. Apart from some great thrills and spills, I’m not sure it improved the book.
But then, who cares? As a reviewer one can sometimes be guilty of finding fault for the sake of it. This is a fine novel that I enjoyed from first page to last. The characterisation is second to none, and there are some great new innovations and interesting reworkings of old tropes. I particularly liked the way magic works. The novel stands in its own right, which is always good, yet there is plenty of scope for more stories. With her three central characters Jen Williams has created something special. I can envisage reading tale after tale that featured them without ever getting tired. This book may have been based on the promise of copper but it delivers gold.
Many thanks to Anne and the team for sending me a copy of the book.