This review first published on Fantasy Faction
Contains minor spoilers.
Although I’m in danger of echoing some of Joanne Hall’s excellent commenrary published here earlier this month, I feel that The Iron Ghost absolutely deserves the attention of two reviews. I’d like to start by highlighting Joanne’s point about middle book syndrome and the way in which The Iron Ghost so deftly escapes it. This is tied up with another current trend in fantasy: open endings.
I’m not a fan of them. When a book is part of a series and there’s a minimum wait of a year between instalments, it’s just plain careless to leave the reader hanging off the edge of a chapter, grasping fruitlessly at the air. A re-read is inevitable. About three quarters of the way through The Iron Ghost, I was convinced we were heading for that familiar cliff and I was overjoyed to be proved wrong.
Structure is just one of the many ways Williams subverts the norm, seemingly without any intention to do so. Like its predecessor, The Iron Ghost – a clever and apt title as you’ll discover – is a self-contained adventure with an air of RPG questing. I hope that doesn’t sound too geeky or frivolous: Williams takes the best elements of fantasy and weaves them effortlessly into a story with a brilliant plotline and characters to care about.
Joanne did a great job summarising that plotline, so I won’t repeat it here. Instead I’d like to comment on Williams’ characters, both the three protagonists and the surprisingly large supporting cast. The strength of these books is rooted in character development and there’s no shortage in The Iron Ghost. I was beyond excited to hook up with Wydrin, Seb and Frith after nearly a year away and, from their first entrance, I was immediately reminded why I fell in love with them.
Wydrin is refreshingly sanguine when confronted with tough situations and has lost none of her zeal for potentially dangerous things. One of those dangerous things is Lord Aaron Frith, who mellows somewhat during this book, but still feels torn between familial duty and his love for both Wydrin and magic. Fallen knight Sebastian has to let go of his past hurts in order to build a new life for the brood sisters – his dragonkin daughters who readers of The Copper Promise will remember best for their role in pulling the limbs off humans and setting things on fire.
Flashbacks are prominent in The Iron Ghost, a narrative feature that sets the book apart from The Copper Promise. I was initially unsure about them, wondering whether they detracted from the main plotline, but I quickly came to appreciate the extra depth and context they gave to both character and situation, and they never dragged or became cumbersome. The flashbacks are mostly about Sebastian and his time spent with the brood sisters after the events of The Copper Promise. It’s an interesting period in his life which we would not otherwise get to see and it also grants the brood sisters some space to develop as individual characters.
Williams utilises quite an array of POVs, even granting very minor characters a voice. While I thought this unnecessary in places, it doesn’t actually have a negative impact on the book as a whole, and indeed it’s executed with the same effortlessness that characterises the rest of the narrative. The most interesting minor POV character is Siano, an assassin who enables the primary antagonist to return to power. She features prominently in the first half of the book and provides Williams with a good opportunity to showcase her talent in writing unlikeable, yet compelling characters. Siano discovers too late that she’s just another pawn in the antagonist’s grand scheme, a realisation which exposes the true, brutal natures of Bezcavar and Joah.
This brings me neatly to Joah Demonsworn, formerly Joah Lightbringer, a resurrected mage with a great deal of power and a greater deal of insanity. So saying, Joah is not unsympathetic. His desire to travel further down the path of knowledge than his contemporaries believed possible resulted in a pact with Bezcavar, the same demon Sebastian encounters in The Copper Promise. It’s implied that when he asked to see the demon’s true face, the sight drove him mad.
After a thousand years in the tomb, Joah is genuinely distressed to discover that his fellow mages are all dead and so it’s natural that he wants to befriend Frith, desiring to pass on his learning. A sympathetic villain is an absolutely essential component of a successful story and Williams nails it here. Joah’s growing distaste for Bezcavar and his eventual rejection of the demon throws the inhumanity of Bezcavar into sharp relief and prompts the reader to consider both the nature and the limits of evil.
The enmity of the neighbouring Skald and Narhl peoples adds another facet to this discussion. We first encounter their division from the perspective of the Skald, making us predisposed to dislike the Narhl. But of course it’s not so simple and we quickly discover that the enmity has arisen from two opposing ideologies, as is often the case. It’s a sticky problem for our heroes, especially as a tentative relationship develops between Sebastian and the Narhl prince, but the eventual way Williams resolves it is both clever and inevitable.
The Iron Ghost, is not just an expansion in terms of character and story, although watching the protagonists interact with each other is indeed a pleasure. Williams’ quiet discussion of the intricacies of human nature carries an air of the philosophical, which I found to be comprehensive and well-communicated. And yet, the book remains refreshing, light-handed and an absolute delight to read. This series truly cements Jen Williams in my mind as one of the best debut fantasy authors of recent years.