The Copper Promise: Jen Williams

★★★½

The Copper Cat: Book I

My to-read pile for the Summer Without Men project includes rather a lot of sober books examining the human condition. It was refreshing to offset those with Jen Williams’s novel, which swaggered its way to the top of the list with the ease of a roistering sell-sword in a shabby tavern. I’ve meant to read The Copper Cat for some time and I decided this was the perfect moment, as I inch closer to my holidays. A loving tribute to the golden age of sword-and-sorcery, The Copper Promise is a gleeful romp complete with an odd couple of mercenaries, a fledgling mage, haunted ancient ruins, magical artefacts, murderous gods, and even a dragon. Yet it’s written with a lighthearted modern touch and our ‘heroes’ are a well-drawn and diverse bunch. It’s a jolly good fantasy adventure, fresh and fun while affectionately respecting the genre’s conventions.

We first encounter Aaron Frith in unfortunate circumstances. To be precise, he’s being tortured by Yellow-Eyed Rin, the henchman of the Lady Bethan, herself a factotum of the blood-soaked warlord Fane, who has recently taken the Friths’ castle. She’s heard rumours of the Frith family’s immense wealth, hidden in a vault somewhere in the nearby forest, but young Frith (or Lord Frith, as he is now, as his father and brothers have already given out under Rin’s tender mercies) won’t budge. His honour does him credit, but ultimately leaves him in rather poor shape.

Some time later, and some way across country, two slightly less honourable types are killing time in a tavern. The notorious mercenary Wydrin, the Copper Cat of Crosshaven, is on a mission with her business partner Sir Sebastian (although he isn’t nowadays entitled to the Sir, having been thrown out of his knightly order in disgrace). They’ve been hired by a mysterious lordling – Lord Frith – who wants them to travel down with him into the haunted depths of the Citadel of Creos. Of course, no sane person would go into the Citadel, what with rumours of ghosts and dark magic and gods knows what else hiding down there. But Wydrin and Sebastian are willing to give anything a go for gold… and they swiftly realise that Frith might not be entirely sane either…

Obviously, any dark, echoing ancient ruin in a fantasy novel isn’t going to be a good place to hang around and Wydrin and Sebastian soon realise that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. Their friend Gallo, who came ahead of them, has vanished; and Frith seems unhealthily obsessed with getting to a particular lake in the depths. As they press on, the partners discover that sometimes stories do have roots in truth – and that dark legends can all too easily be real, lying dormant, waiting to be freed. As the consequences of their reckless act spiral out into the wider world, Wydrin, Sebastian and Frith must summon all their courage and ability to face the evil forces they have unleashed. Along the way, of course, there are seers, priestesses, pirates and peculiar hermits, but the ultimate focus remains on our heroes, and their race against time to save the world.

Williams clearly had an inordinate amount of fun writing this book and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Sword-and-sorcery isn’t a genre I read much of – you’ll remember that I generally prefer less overtly magical alternate universes – but it really was quite hard to resist The Copper Promise’s charm. There’s a definite hint of a tongue in cheek in Williams’s writing, as her characters cheerfully smash through sword-and-sorcery stereotypes: Wydrin may be a sell-sword with red hair, but the disappointed Frith realises that this doesn’t necessarily mean tumbling fiery locks or impractically scanty armour. Sebastian may be a brooding, fearsome warrior, but he has inner struggles and demons of his own (sometimes quite literally); and Frith may have the power to conjure elemental magic, but that doesn’t stop him from being, at times, a bit of a prat. Together, these three ill-matched companions fumble their way through a wonderfully rich adventure and I had a great time travelling with them. In fact, I’m hoping to snaffle the next two books from the library at the earliest possible opportunity. I’m hoping to have some questions answered: what is the real significance of the Frith vault? What’s in Crowleo’s blue glass ball? And what will happen to Sebastian’s ‘daughters’?

Not only is Williams a female fantasy author, but she’s also a London-based fantasy author and I still get very excited about ‘home-grown’ talent, because so many of the authors I read come from across the pond. Luckily for me, Williams is now in the middle of writing a new trilogy, The Winnowing Flame, so there will be plenty of adventure and magic to look forward to, even if I do race ahead through The Copper Cat. Has anyone else read her books? And has anyone started on The Winnowing Flame yet?

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