The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams

February 23, 2017

The great city of Ebora once glittered with gold. Now its streets are stalked by wolves. Tormalin the Oathless has no taste for sitting around waiting to die while the realm of his storied ancestors falls to pieces – talk about a guilt trip. Better to be amongst the living, where there are taverns full of women and wine.

When eccentric explorer, Lady Vincenza ‘Vintage’ de Grazon, offers him employment, he sees an easy way out. Even when they are joined by a fugitive witch with a tendency to set things on fire, the prospect of facing down monsters and retrieving ancient artefacts is preferable to the abomination he left behind.

But not everyone is willing to let the Eboran empire collapse, and the adventurers are quickly drawn into a tangled conspiracy of magic and war. For the Jure’lia are coming, and the Ninth Rain must fall…

Last week I read Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames. Its great fun fantasy, lots of axes, fighting and what-not. You get the gist. This week I’m reading more fantasy, it’s also brilliant but in an entirely different way. The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams is a far more cerebral affair, and it had me hooked from page one.

Lady Vincenza ‘Vintage’ de Grazon is a force of nature. You get the distinct impression that when she enters a room people know about it. From a wealthy background, Vintage has spent her years exploring the world. Why has the Eboran fallen into such a steep decline? Where have their enemies disappeared to? Williams starts to blend in elements from another genre to the point where reading The Ninth Rain almost feels like you are following a fantastical detective. Vintage is a natural observer, and extremely skilled at drawing people round to her way of thinking. So skilled in fact, that by conversations end, she has left them sure that any suggestion she has made was their idea in the first place. The natural inquisitiveness that Vintage exhibits belies a very subtle sadness in her character. Each new chapter begins with a letter or note she has penned, and they act as an insightful glimpse into her heart. The further you read, the more you discover about how she has ended up the way she is. I loved her, but felt sorry for her in the same breath.

Tormalin the Oathless is another troubled soul. The Eborans are a long-lived race, something akin to vampires, and decades ago Tor walked out on what was left of their ancient society. He has spent years wandering the world, drinking and wenching. Acting as the muscle on Vintage’s various quests offers some small attempt at redemption for the shame he feels.

Fell-Noon is a witch. Feared by the general population, she has spent years locked away as she is viewed as danger to herself and others. A prophetic dream prompts Noon to escape her captivity and go on the run. She escapes her old life and almost immediately falls in with Vintage and Tor. Noon is the enigma of the group. She has been told since a young age that she is an abomination, evil and unclean. She knows little of her powers, and is as fearful of everyone else when she tries to use them. I’m curious to see how her character continues to evolve. She also has a giant bat Fulcor, which I am sure we can all agree, is pretty darn cool.

Thinking about it I suppose each of member of this trio are lost in one form or another. Vintage fills the void in her life by seeking knowledge, Tor chases hedonistic oblivion and Noon runs from her past. There is something utterly fascinating about watching how damaged characters interact with one another and how they deal with the high stress situations they find themselves in.  One of the things I like most about Jen Williams writing is that she is always spot on with her characterisation. Vintage, Tor and Noon are fully realised and feel tantalisingly close to being real. There is a wonderful sense of familiarity, it’s almost like you know them already. I suspect that is the key to any good genre fiction, creating characters that you can easily empathise with.

Regular readers of my reviews know that I like to suggest a musical accompaniment to enjoy when reading any book that I’m reviewing. This time I’ve gone and done something a little bit different. I asked the author, via the modern miracle that is Twitter, what she thought I should listen to. She very obligingly replied. So, for the first time ever we have an author recommendation –  Marika Hackman/We Slept at Last (specifically the tracks Animal Fear & Skin) & The Guest soundtrack*

Jen Williams has more than established her fantasy bona-fides with the excellent Copper Cat trilogy, I was genuinely sad when that fine series ended. It’s wonderful to see that with book one of The Winnowing Flame series she is continuing the trend of creating top notch novels. In my opinion the best modern fantasy fiction manages that tricky task of balancing the old and the new. Not only does it pay homage to long established ideas that make fantasy so damned fantastical it also goes one step further. It holds a mirror up to ourselves and show us how society has changed. Modern fantasy is far more forward thinking and inclusive than its predecessors. The Ninth Rain is a perfect example of exactly that. I’m looking forward to the next book already.

As an aside, if you do happen to be in London today (23rd) between 6pm and 7pm and you are that ways inclined there is a launch event for The Ninth Rain at Forbidden Planet on Shaftesbury Avenue. It’s at time like this that I wished I lived closer to our nation’s capital. If I did I would most definitely pop along.

The Ninth Rain is published by Headline and is available now. Highly recommended.

*I let her have two recommendations. Seems only fair, she wrote the book after all.

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