The Bitter Twins by Jen Williams

March 8, 2018

Please note, before proceeding any further, The Bitter Twins is the second part of The Winnowing Flame trilogy. If you haven’t read part one then it is likely this review may contain something akin to minor spoilers. Don’t say you weren’t suitably warned!

The Ninth Rain has fallen, the Jure’lia have returned, and with Ebora a shadow of its former self, the old enemy are closer to conquering Sarn than ever.

Tormalin the Oathless and the Fell-Witch Noon have their hands full dealing with the first war-beasts to be born in Ebora for nearly three hundred years. But these are not the great mythological warriors of old; hatched too early and with no link to their past lives, the war-beasts have no memory of the many battles they have fought and won, and no concept of how they can possibly do it again. The key to uniting them, according to the scholar Vintage, may lie in a part of Sarn no one really believes exists, but finding it will mean a dangerous journey at a time of war…

Meanwhile, Hestillion is trapped on board the corpse moon, forced into a strange and uneasy alliance with the Jure’lia queen. Something terrifying is growing up there, in the heart of the Behemoth, and the people of Sarn will have no defence against these new monsters.

Over the last few years, Jen Williams has firmly established herself as a genre author of note. The second book in The Winnowing Flame trilogy reinforces once again why, if you haven’t already, you really should be reading her work. Fantasy has a tendency to sometimes get bogged down in endless unnecessary detail. Some readers relish that, but it’s not for me. I want a story that delivers a sense of wonder, of perilous adventure. A dragon or two is always a nice added bonus as well. The Bitter Twins delivers that and more

I’m not going to dwell much on the plot for this review. You need to discover that yourself. Where I think Jen Williams’ writing excels is with her beautifully judged characterization. It doesn’t matter if they are human, Eborean, war-beast or something else entirely. Without exception, all the characters are fully realised creations.

Those amongst you who read my review of book one, The Ninth Rain, will not be massively surprised when I tell you Lady Vincenza ‘Vintage’ de Grazon remains a firm favourite. She is a wonderful mix of adventurer, absent minded professor, fussy mother and strict but well-meaning headmistress. Vintage can disarm with a withering glance and if that doesn’t do the job, she’ll break out her trusty crossbow instead. Fiercely loyal, endlessly inquisitive and hopelessly optimistic beyond measure, she is exactly the sort of person that others are instinctively drawn toward. Everyone needs a friend like her in their corner.

The growing relationship between Alasdair and Bern the Younger is tentative and delicately handled. Having two characters find one another in the midst of a crisis, when they could be ripped apart at a moment’s notice, has the potential to be utterly gut-wrenching.  I don’t think I was quite prepared for how emotive it all got. I’ll admit there are some moments in The Bitter Twins that caught me right in the feels*

A large chunk of the narrative separates the cast into smaller groups, and I like this approach. Tormalin and Noon head off on one quest, Alasdair and Bern on another. Meanwhile Vintage, Nan and a young Eboran called Eri have to try and hold together the fractious little band of survivors who are attempting to mount some sort of resistance against the Jure’lia. These sub plots give each of the characters the opportunity to shine.

There are some intriguing new characters as well. I particularly liked Tyranny Munk. Her backstory sounds like it could easily be a novel in its own right. Maybe if we ask really nicely one day that will happen? That would be awesome.

Elsewhere there are chapters that follow Tormalin’s sister, Hestillion, as she continues to move away from her Eboran heritage. Sometimes I find villains can be a little flat when it comes to fantasy. They’re all “I’m conveniently evil because the heroes need an adversary”. In the case of The Bitter Twins that statement could not be further from the truth. Hestillion remains angry and resentful of just about everyone and everything. The Jure’lian queen has seized upon all this rage and twisted those emotions within Hestillion, corrupting her entirely. Williams deftly picks apart all the conflicting facets of the character. What motivates the choices that Hestillion has made? Is there any going back after the terrible things she has done? This novel gives us an antagonist who is relatable and has genuine depth.

You’ve probably spotted by now, I could waffle merrily about the characters in The Bitter Twins all day. Hell, I’ve not even mentioned the war-beasts yet, they deserve an entire review for themselves. Vostok, Kirune, Jessen, Sharrik, and Helcate are wondrous creations.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Ninth Rain. I’ll admit I think it set the bar pretty high for any potential sequel. I needn’t have worried though, The Bitter Twins more than meets and exceeds that challenge. Existing characters evolve, new characters are introduced and fit seamlessly into the narrative. The scope of the overarching plot develops in unexpected and engrossing ways. It’s a winner at every turn.

Musically, I felt the hauntingly evocative soundtrack to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Blood and Wine by Marcin Przybyłowicz, Mikolai Stroinski and Piotr Musiał was a perfect fit with The Bitter Twins. Jen Williams paints a picture-perfect fantasy landscape so it needs a suitably awe-inspiring score to accompany it. Trust me, they are a perfect fit.

The Bitter Twins is published by Headline and is available from 8th March. Highly recommended. I can’t wait for the final book in The Winnowing Flame trilogy, it is shaping up to be something uniquely special.

*Apologies, nothing worse than a middle-aged man trying to use that hip slang that the kids use…Well, I assume they still use it. They no longer return my calls. Damn them and their Instagrams and whatnot.

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