Jen Williams (

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hrpv2For the fifth title in the Hodderscape Review Project, we move into the realms of fantasy with the debut novel from Jen Williams, The Copper Promise, released this month by Headline. Don’t forget to check in to the Review Project site to find out what my fellow reviewers thought of this title.

The Citadel of Creos has stood for centuries, a remnant and constant reminder of the ancient mages, reputed to have been built as a prison for the gods. Aaron Frith, Lord of the Blackwood and last remaining member of his family, has endured hardship and torture, and now wants revenge. He believes that the secrets that lie within the Citadel will give him the power he needs to find and defeat the monsters who destroyed his family and stole his lands. Hiring Wydrin and Sir Sebastian, a pair of sell-swords, the trio head into the depths of the Citadel. In finding the power of the mages, they unwittingly release Y’Ruen, a dragon goddess, and the army of lizard-like women she has spent her centuries of imprisonment creating. Now revenge must take a back seat: Y’Ruen must by stopped before she lays the entire world of Ede to waste.

I can be a bit hard to convince when it comes to so-called “high fantasy”, the type of novels which take Tolkien as their inspiration and spend more time creating races of funny-looking people and languages to go with them than they do developing a plot outside the basic quest structure. Thankfully, Jen Williams’ debut, The Copper Promise, is nothing like that sort of book. Yes, there is an element of the quest novel here, though it is abandoned and picked up and abandoned again as the novel progresses; yes, there are strange new creatures, but it is how Williams handles them that sets this apart from the norm. The emphasis here is on the characters and how their decisions impact on the world around them, while still managing to tell a story that moves at a rollicking pace and provides the requisite amount of wit, blood and fire-breathing dragons to keep even the most sceptical of fantasy readers turning the pages as fast as they can.

At the heart of the story is the Frith family, all but young Aaron tortured to death by invaders whose sole aim is to find the location of the family’s secret vault. Left for dead, Aaron makes his way to Creos, having heard the rumours and stories about the Citadel, and hoping to gain some of the mages’ magic for himself in order to get vengeance for his murdered father and brothers. When it turns out that all of the rumours about the Citadel are true, and Frith and his hired muscle release the savage dragon-god, Y’Ruen on the world, Aaron finds himself faced with the choice between getting his revenge, or saving the world. Aaron’s companions are Wydrin, who styles herself the Copper Cat, and Sir Sebastian, a disgraced knight who was once a member of the revered order of Ynnsmouth Knights. Where Williams sets herself apart is that the majority of the development of these characters happens when they are apart. Unlike the standard quest structure of “here to here to here”, the band fractures quite early in the novel, the three individuals going their own way to seek their own adventures. This is a pattern that will repeat later in the novel, and the story feels much fresher for it, a proper examination of these unique personalities, rather than a constant trading of banter and insults.

Along with the dragon, the trio find themselves faced with an army of lizard-like women who have been created by the god during her captivity in the Citadel. These creatures have been brought to life as a result of Sebastian almost bleeding to death within the confines of the monstrous edifice. This has an unexpected side-effect, and Williams gives us some insight into this process, as members of the army gain self-awareness and develop their own unique personalities, to the point that they are choosing names for themselves.

‘I want to keep these words with me,’ said the Twelfth. She tried to gather up all the books and dropped them again.

‘Tear out the pages?’ suggested the Ninety-Seventh. The Thirty-Third frowned. Somehow she felt their father wouldn’t approve of that.

‘No,’ said the Twelfth, who apparently felt the same. ‘I will make them my name. You will call me Crocus from now on.’

This in strong counterpoint to the journey that their father, Sebastian, is taking, sinking ever deeper into darkness until the point where he swears his sword, and all the blood that it spills, to a demon, as if his daughters are sucking the humanity from him in their own bid to become more like him.

While not quite as “un-fantasy” as George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, Jen Williams’ The Copper Promise is certainly a lot more grounded than most swords and sorcery-type fiction. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this book – and one of its biggest selling points for me – is the fact that it does in a single volume what many fantasy authors might try to do over the course of three or four books (five hundred pages before the dragon makes an appearance and our heroic trio finally escape from the Citadel, for example), while still leaving us with the promise of much more to come. The characters are well-rounded, fully fleshed-out and we find ourselves wanting to know what will happen to them next – this is most prevalent when they are apart, and we find ourselves wondering if they’re likely to get back together again, or whether they will continue on separate paths for the duration.

Fast-paced and wonderfully-realised, Jen Williams’ first novel is a delight, even for one so jaded as me when it comes to fantasy fiction. An intriguing premise made more so by the neat touches Williams adds to the story – the Secret Keeper is a prime example of these – the reader will encounter pirates, dragons, zombies, gods and demons, to name but a few, on their journey through this exciting new world. Not for the faint of heart, but you probably knew that already.

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