BOOK REVIEW: The Copper Promise

CopperPromise_visual.jpgI don’t remember how I got chatting to Jen Williams on Twitter but she seemed like a laugh and was enthusiastic about a lot of things I liked. She got pretty excited when her e-book hit the Kindle store, so I thought I’d give it a punt. Ghosts Of The Citadel started off as a standard bit of low fantasy, sending a mismatched party of adventurers into an ancient fortress and basically getting them into as much trouble as possible. There was something sparky about the character interaction though, some inventive touches of world-building that made it really stick in my head, and then it was crowned off by an absolute corker of an ending. This caused enough of a stir with readers that parts two, three and four of what would eventually become The Copper Promise were cajoled out of her by friends and industry professionals. Headline finally published the complete novel back in February and commissioned Jen to write a sequel or two, much to everyone’s delight. Life being life, I’ve only just gotten around to reading the full thing but I’m pleased to say I had a huge grin on my face most of the way through it. This is neither a portentous brick full of battles nor a grim-dark chronicle of carnage, but a flagrant, fast paced and above all fun bit of pulp. It might not shake your literary world but it will remind you why you fell in love with the fantasy genre in the first place.

Now, it’s no secret The Copper Promise features a dragon: it dominates the book cover, and rather spiffing it looks too. This is no tame beast to be ridden though, no magical sage to bond with, nor avatar of nature to be marveled at. It is nothing short of a God of destruction, and as the tag-line warns you, it’s best to let sleeping Gods lie. It represents for me one of the greatest strengths and also weaknesses of the book – of which I’ll discuss later. As I’ve said, The Copper Promise is low fantasy. For the uninitiated this means we get to look at this world through the eyes of the underclass. Where some books focus on Kings, Generals or otherwise superior beings, low fantasy thrusts us into the dirty streets with cut-purses, beggars and sell-swords. You feel the imbalance in the way the world is run and, rather than toitering off on their destined paths of the Chosen-one, low fantasy characters usually have to fight and finagle their way through just to afford their next meal. The Dragon Y’Ruen is the ultimate symbol of that imbalance of power: a force of destruction that sweeps across nations. It’s a genuinely awe-inspiring representation and it is to Williams’ credit that Y’Ruen’s  shadow hovers ominously over the whole book despite the fact that so little time is spent in her company.

The company we do keep is Jen’s most glorious creation: Wydrin of Crosshaven, aka the Copper Cat. Wydrin is a mischievous, confident, capable adventurer with a wicked sense of humour and a devastating pair of daggers. She strides above many female protagonists I’ve encountered because she is in no way defined by the men around her. Powerful female characters often come across as either warrior-men-with-breasts or else they are portrayed as manipulators, controlling men through sex and deceit. Wydrin feels truer to life than those depictions. At heart she just loves living. She’s a drinker, a fighter, a card-sharp and a thief. If she likes a man she may take him to bed, but she knows plenty more adventurous ways to have fun too. Her main partner in crime is a disgraced knight called Sebastian, with whom she shares beer, business and banter. Come the third part of the book, Sebastian takes an intriguing turn from his grimly self-righteous posture, but it has to be said he does spend the first half as pretty much just the straight man to Wydrin’s lovable larrakin. I’m hoping he is given more dimension in the next book, as he feels underused here. The final member of the party is Aaron Frith, a noble brought low at the hands of a torturer. He is an odd kind of character to choose as a protagonist, but he balances the personalities of the others beautifully. He is imperious, hot-headed, selfish and brusque – a hard man to like, yet compelling in his single-minded quest for vengeance. It is he who drives the plot for most of the book, though the reader never mistakes him for the main character.

I must just mention how much I appreciated the way The Copper Promise is put together. I have recently come off of the back of reading one of Scott Lynch’s books and, much as I love spending time with Locke Lamora, the chapter lengths demand good solid chunks of time. You may not begrudge that when you are off on holiday, but short chapters are an absolute boon when your reading time is limited by work, family commitments and the like. It sounds like faint praise, but having a book I could pick up in odd moments and put down again without losing some long convoluted thread was absolutely wonderful. The pulpier end of fantasy revels in short, self-contained adventures, allowing the author the freedom to focus on driving the plot forward and delivering killer scenarios. The Copper Promise delivers a dungeon quest, the liberation of a terrorised town, journeys of self discovery and a climactic struggle with ancient evil – each in bite sized segments. Everything has its down side, of course. Whilst character motivation remains consistent, I did feel at times as though Wydrin and company were being moved about the board like chess pieces. The authorial hand was never brutal enough to tear me out of the story, but neither was it subtle enough to wholly lose myself in the narrative. What really let the book down for me though was the overarching plot. Having set her low-status characters up against such a spectacular foe, Williams faced the vertiginous problem of how to resolve it. Credit where it’s due, she made a pretty good fist of upping their level (in individually credible ways) and setting up story vectors early enough to bring about the ending she’s chosen, but I was left with a disappointing sense that in the end it had all been a bit… too easy.

Time will tell whether The Copper Promise will tarnish further upon re-reading, or shine out all the more in the warmth of familiarity. Certainly Jen’s characterisation and inventiveness are such that the flaws of her novel are easily forgiven. Perseverance can only polish what is already a fine talent.

GS Rating: 3.5/5

GS Blogger: Dion Winton-Polak

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