The Copper Promise by Jen Williams

23rd March 2014

The Copper PromiseThe Copper Promise by Jen Williams

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Traditional fantasy with twenty-first century characters

The Copper Promise is a breath of fresh air in the often stuffy world of epic fantasy. Perhaps that’s because it is better described as heroic fantasy. The worldbuilding is on the light side and, granted, that may deter more nerdy types, but Williams offers just the right amount of setting against which to play out her story. And it’s a brilliant story, led by three distinct characters.

Wydrin is an audacious sell-sword and a thoroughly modern woman. Sir Sebastian carries the intriguing title of disgraced knight (think Sturm from Dragonlance with more grit and a far more precarious preoccupation with honour). And then we have Lord Frith, a young, anguished ‘princeling’ (in Wydrin’s words), tortured and hounded from his ancestral home in the Blackwood.

I readily admit that I have a tiny obsession with Frith. He is a wonderfully multi-faceted character whom you cannot help but love even though he’s a bit of a shit (using the technical term). His moral compass may be somewhat short of decent, but that makes him a far more credible human being considering his tough past.

Williams effectively portrays contemporary issues and relationships, using devices rarely found in fantasy with a traditional bent. Specifics aside, I thought Sebastian’s predicament was communicated with a light, perceptive touch, which was never an overt broadcast of the author’s own opinion. Out of the three protagonists, Sebastian probably develops the most, and I liked him better for his weaknesses. I hope I don’t sound too crude when I say that Williams drags the untarnished knight stereotype through the dirt.

Wydrin is the most confident in her own abilities. She has a distinctive personality, again atypical of a fantasy hero. She can be annoying and charming in equal measure and provides some much needed common sense in times of difficulty. Often she alone recognises the reality of a situation, while the men hot-headedly act without thinking. She gets my vote for that trait alone.

I think you can clearly see by the structure of this review that the characters carry the story. When we do have setting, it’s well-realised, but not belaboured. Williams doesn’t revel in long-winded descriptions of place. She paints what needs to be painted and drops her characters straight into the scene. If you are in any way weary of great-complicated-empire-type fantasy, this is the book for you.

The magic system is pretty straight-forward, but I liked the twist of writing the words of control on bandages which the mage then wears into battle. Even though the magic of the mages is powerful, there are many limitations on its use, which – as Williams herself has publicly discussed – ensures that our heroes don’t have too easy a time of it.

I was rather surprised at how quickly the book wrapped up. I expected the last narrative arc to take place in a subsequent book, perhaps because I am so used to long-drawn out plots. Even though the denouement unfolds over a scant few pages, it doesn’t seem rushed, which is indicative of real ability on the author’s part. Although The Copper Promise works well as a stand-alone novel, the ending is left open for subsequent adventures. And I wouldn’t miss those for the world.

In conclusion, this is a confident, well-written debut with an echo of Dungeons and Dragons. Its superb character-driven narrative simultaneously breaks the mould while remaining true to traditional sword and sorcery adventure. Throw in one suitably malevolent dragon and you have yourself an epic book.

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