The Copper Cat Trilogy: Book II
In the second instalment of Jen Williams’s sword-and-sorcery extravaganza, we rejoin our three heroes, now calling themselves the Black Feather Three: Wydrin, the titular Copper Cat of Crosshaven; the disgraced knight Sir Sebastian; and the aristocratic mage Aaron Frith. Their new job has brought them out to the mountainous wilds of Skaldshollow, where they finds themselves cast into the middle of an age-old rivalry between the Skalds and their neighbours, the Narhl. All they have to do is retrieve the Heart-Stone, a precious artefact crucial to the Skalds, but sacred to the Narhl, who have stolen it. It should have been easy. And yet, before they know what’s happened, our three adventurers find themselves caught up in another terrifying tale of ancient magic, demons, blood, ruined cities and the living dead.
The Black Feather Three may have otherworldly magic on their side, and a reputation that’s already on the brink of becoming legendary, but they also have responsibilities and Williams never lets them forget that. Wydrin has traditionally gone through life with a gleeful disregard for anything but her two blades, but her devil-may-care attitude is increasingly tempered by her fondness for Frith. Frith himself is troubled by the thought of his family’s castle, waiting for him with all the obligations that come with nobility, including the ‘suitable’ marriage that he dreads. And Sebastian must deal with the consequences of being ‘father’ to the brood-sisters born of the dragon Y’Ruen in the first book, honing their skills while trying to teach them what it means to be human.
So a new adventure promises to bring them all together again, but they swiftly realise that things in Skaldshallow are anything but simple. This is a place of hard, stony people, who have conquered their environment by creating werkens – creatures formed from the rock of the surrounding mountains and linked to ‘riders’ by using chips of the Heart-Stone to bring them to life. From that point of view, it’s vital to get the Heart-Stone back, so that the Skalds can continue their culture. But what of the Narhl position – that the werkens are actually animate, thinking, feeling creatures, part of the mountain’s living rock, and that the Skalds are exploiting a sacred and ancient intelligence? Ethics is unfamiliar ground for our doughty adventurers (and particularly for Wydrin), but for once they find themselves having to assess the moral ground of their quest.
Unfortunately ethics isn’t the only thing at stake. Skaldshollow lies under the influence of a newly-arrived Prophet, a shadowy figure whose directives seem to be leading them closer and closer to blood – and who will be alarmingly familiar to those who’ve read the first book. And, unknown to everyone but the Prophet, a young assassin is making her way towards Skaldshollow with vials of blood which, when combined, will unleash an ancient and deadly power back into the world. Skaldshollow isn’t simply the focal point of a minor internecine war – it’s on the brink of becoming the eye of the storm, the centre of a cataclysm that has the power to rock the entire world. And our heroes are at the heart of it, along with their unlikely new friends: the Narhl prince Dallen; the Skald crafter Nuava; and the werken Mendrick.
I have to admit that I didn’t find this instalment quite as delightful as the first book, because I suppose some of the novelty had worn off, but I still very much enjoyed Williams’s fertile imagination and the classic fantasy topoi that she lovingly weaves into her story. Wydrin’s characterisation is particularly glorious: the contrast between her no-nonsense dialogue and the more elevated ideals of Sebastian or Frith is pitch-perfect. At times I found myself thinking that I’d pay good money to read about Wydrin going on an adventure with Mildmay from the Doctrine of Labyrinths series by Sarah Monette. There are some slight weaknesses in The Iron Ghost’s plot, perhaps: loose ends, and some extremely handy coincidences, but I find it hard to be too stern about these, because the book moves at a lightning pace and thoroughly fulfils its mission of being an old-fashioned romp, full of adventure, magic and quips in the face of danger.
Admittedly, I’ve probably had enough of fantasy zombies for now, so I hope there’ll be fewer of those in the third book, but I’m really looking forward to finding out what’s on the agenda next for the redoubtable Black Feather Three.