Jen Williams’ Copper Promise was one of my stand-out novels of 2014. It is an accomplished debut filled with first rate character writing. It’s players are compromised heroes, yet the novel is in no way dark. They’re not villains, not heroes, simply humans.
I was filled with second book trepidation when picking up The Iron Ghost. I would expect great things in this book, where I had only hoped for them when picking up book 1. Would I find that it shined brightly like the burnished Copper Promise, or would The Iron Ghost show rust spots?
Sebastian’s internal struggle with demons, both metaphorical and literal, was the pinnacle of The Copper Promise. There isn’t anything that quite reaches those heights in The Iron Ghost, but it is a fine novel all the same. Williams delivers an epic battle against a force of great evil. Yes, this is a standard trope, but Williams is an author who can handle the complex side of human nature, which gives her storie an added dimension.
The villain may be a towering force of evil, but he is not a shadowy faceless Dark Lord. He is a man with deep psychological problems, exploited by an unscrupulous manipulator. Yes, Bezcavar is back, and, once again, he is where the true wickedness lies. It is clever device. The character who is wholly and irredeemably evil has only limited power. He is strong of mind but weak of body, and must find others to do his dirty work. Bezcavar is a creation of the highest order. Consumed by malice, chilling to the core, he steals every scene he’s in.
As the novel opens the Black Feather Three have decamped to an icy continent, hired to settle an internecine dispute. One faction (the Skalds) uses a magical stone, to imbue giant golems with life. The other (the Narhl) believe this is heresy of the highest order and that the Skalds are defiling the mountain Gods. Who’s right will turn out to be very important. Things of course don’t run out as expected. Whilst Wydrin, Frith and Sebastian are going about their quest, somebody else’s plan is coming to fruition. Suddenly there’s a new mage on the block, and he can do things Frith can only dream of.
The rest of the novel is effectively a quest to put the genie back in the bottle. It will take the characters (particularly Frith) to some dark places. No tool in the arsenal can go unused, no matter how dark, if the Black Feather Three are to save the world. This raises interesting questions about whether the ends justify the means, though events do rather steamroll over the answer. The Iron Ghost lacks some of the subtlety of The Copper Promise; it starts to feel like a procession of set pieces, each more preposterously lethal than the last. The exception to this is the continuing story of the brood sisters. This is an interesting thread about self expression and stepping out of your parents’ shadow. Again something you don’t usually find in fantasy fiction.
There may be lots of action, but its quality is always high. It’s forever exciting. Once again Williams delivers the feeling of playing D&D in the best ever dungeon crawl. I’ve not encountered this before, and whilst I wouldn’t want it in every book I read, it makes the Black Feather Three books uniquely exciting. By maintaining strong characterisation and visceral action scenes, Williams avoids the ‘difficult second novel’ problem. The 500+ pages whip by, with numerous surprises that I won’t spoil here. Whether we see the Black Feather Three have another outing remains to be seen, but whatever Jen Williams does next, I’ll be there.
Many Thanks to Caitlin at Headline for sending me a copy of this book.