Friday, 18 April 2014

Review | The Copper Promise - Jen Williams

...and I'm back!

Jen Williams seems to have reinvented brevity in the epic fantasy. Okay, I exaggerate, but The Copper Promise easily works - and works brilliantly - as a standalone novel, something which in a genre of doorstoppers with "to be continued"'s affixed, I find entirely welcome! (I do love epic fantasy, and certain door and elephant stoppers are favourites of mine, but sometimes it's nice to reverse the trend. Don't worry, you'll get your Words of Radiance review soon enough...)
That said, it takes more than a few elements from the sword and sorcery subgenre, so fans there will likely find something in The Copper Promise as well.

The novel begins with our three protagonists breaking into the Citadel - a fortress where the long-dead mages imprisoned the old gods, as well as their choice treasures. ...And naturally, it's the latter that our heroes are in search of: Lord Frith searches for the key to retaking his family keep, whereas Wydrin and Sir Sebastian are more interested in being paid to help him out. But unfortunately, it's the former they inadvertently meddle with: releasing a god intent on destruction, and soon all three end up with roles to play in stopping her.

It's hard to give a plot summary without spoilers: The Copper Promise is an extremely fast-paced novel, and things change quickly. In fact, it's being released in three parts for the ebook edition, which is probably quite fitting, as it does read almost like a trilogy compressed into a single book. Whether you like this or not is another matter. I enjoyed it, as a refreshing change from the drawn-out epics that have dominated the subgenre recently (again, not that I dislike them, but variety is always preferable!), and also as a plot that gave us a great deal of resolution - if fewer sequel hooks, which leaves me wondering what aspects the following books will take up. However, the downside is: there is no status quo. Very little time is given to a single development, in fantasy terms, and while this makes for a fast paced novel, it does disadvantage some character development: Sebastian in particular changes very quickly, whereas Frith's character growth and regression becomes slightly frustrating if only due to their rapidity. Furthermore, one or two twists are a little too predictable. While in a book with many it's hard to balance when the reader realises an upcoming revelation, certain surprises were ruined by overly heavy hinting. That said, in a book with so many, a few early spoilers have little effect on the overall impression.

So let's talk about characters. Frith - well, another character describes him as a bit of a shit, and often this description is kind of apt. That's not to say he isn't a great character, though - he is. It's another good element of the book: we sympathise with Frith and his tragic past, but frequently disagree with his selfish actions. I rather like this aspect of the book, though it would be nice if his development was more stable, especially given the pace - expect frequent regression, which does provide the occasional moment of frustration. In general, though, he's a courageous decision on the author's part that plays off - not a loveable bastard, or a magnificent one, but simply a very flawed human being. Sebastian and Wydrin are more sympathetic and immediately likeable (Wydrin, the Copper Cat of Crosshaven, being my personal favourite - though maybe I just like thieves too much. Locke Lamora, Eli Monpress...), and I enjoyed the roles of both. Sebastian in particular pulls off a slightly Faustian plotline better than most - having solid reasons behind his actions. Williams also does a reasonable job on having a diverse cast, with at least Frith being a PoC, and also avoiding the all-straight part of the typical fantasyland - which is definitely welcome!

Next up, a favourite topic of mine: the magic. While I won't explain the system - what there is comes relatively late in the book - it generally falls on the mystical side, with enough rules explained that the protagonists' use is justified. With the recent trends in the genre towards firmly rule-based magic, it's nice to see that Jen Williams can so excellently preserve some mysticality in hers, proving that fantasy gods in particular can still remain... well, slightly terrifying.

In general, The Copper Promise fulfils its promises: a fun, fast-paced, sword and sorcery-esque epic that manages to provide a very satisfying resolution. Yes, it has flaws - but despite them, it remains a brilliant read, and one I'd highly recommend. While a very neat ending leaves me wondering where the sequel will pick up, I can't wait to see where Williams goes next. Rich, complex, and with a large dose of good S&S character-driven nature amidst the epic fantasy trappings, The Copper Promise is definitely a recommendation for anyone interested in exploring a traditionally-flavoured, but original epic without necessarily getting into a multi-book arc.

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