Talonsister by Jen Williams

September 8, 2023

Leven has no memory of her life before she was a soldier. The process of turning her into a Herald – a magical killing machine – was traumatic enough that it wiped her mind clean. Now, with the war won and the Imperium satisfied, she finds herself unemployed and facing a bleak future. Her fellow Heralds are disappearing, and her own mind seems to be coming apart at the seams. Strange visions, memories she shouldn’t have, are resurfacing, and none of them make any sense. They show her Brittletain, the ancient and mysterious island that the Imperium was never able to tame. Leven resolves to go to this place of magic and warring queens, with the hope of finding who she really is.

Envoy Kaeto has done a number of important little jobs for the Imperium, most of them nasty, all of them in the shadows. His newest assignment is to escort the bone-crafter Gynid Tyleigh as she travels across the Imperium – as the woman responsible for creating the Heralds, his employers owe her a great deal. But Tyleigh’s ambition alarms even Kaeto, and her conviction that she has found a new source of Titan bones, buried deep in the earth, could lead to another, even bloodier war.

Ynis was raised by the griffins, and has never seen another human face. She lives wild, as they do, eating her meat raw and flying with her talon-sister, T’rook. The griffins fiercely protect their isolation – the piles of skulls that litter the mountains of Brittletain are testament to that – but the magic they guard will always make them a target for the greed of men. By choosing not to kill Ynis when she was just a baby, the griffins may have doomed themselves – because the girl’s past is coming for her, and it carries a lethal blade.

I’ve been looking forward to Jen Williams’ latest novel, eagerly waiting as it crept higher and higher to the top of my review pile. Talonsister is the author’s return to the fantasy genre and I come to you bearing the best of news, it is an absolute gem. 

Leven is a retired super soldier, lost without an army to be part of or a war to fight. Cillian is a mystical druin far too interested in the wildest of magics, and Epona is a princess of Londus, thirsty for adventure. This trio couldn’t be more different from one another but circumstance brings them together on a journey that will define the shape of a nation.

Elsewhere, a shady Imperium agent, Envoy Kaeto, is tasked with helping to unlock the secrets of the Titans. These once mighty races have dwindled away to all but nothing. The thing is, Titan bones are imbued with magic containing the rarest of elements. In order for her gleeful plans of world domination to continue, the Empress of the Star Imperium demands these resources must be found and that Kaeto is the man to do it. 

Gosh, I haven’t even mentioned the griffins yet, have I? These magnificent beasts aren’t greatly impressed with humanity. In fact, it’s probably fair to say they look down on us with a certain amount of disgust. They have an almost regal aloofness when it comes to us mere mortals. The fact that Ynis, a human child, has grown up amongst them is a bit of a miracle. She longs to be accepted, to be the equal of her adoptive family but it’s clear deep down there is also a longing to understand where she comes from. 

Each character fits neatly into their various roles and they are established so well they feel like old friends almost immediately. With so many strong contenders there is, no doubt, going to be lots of debate about who the best character is. Once the dust has settled and we’ve all agreed it’s Kaeto’s protege, Belise, then we’ll be able to move on. Who knew a gleefully snarky attitude and natural inquisitiveness are the perfect attributes for a trainee troublemaker. 

Williams skillfully weaves together these characters and their respective narratives to create a first-rate tale. 

As an aside, I was convinced the plot was going to go in a particular direction and I was entirely wrong. I’m always pleased when that happens. I love when authors throw me an unexpected curveball like that.

If the characters in Talonsister are great (they are)  then the world-building is sublime (it is). That extra effort given to even the smallest details really does pay dividends. There is such a perfectly captured sense of history and magic. It’s an impressive feat, Brittletain feels both oddly familiar and yet completely otherworldly in the same breath.

The various clans of Brittletain just about manage to maintain an easy peace between one another. It helps having a shared enemy in the form of the Imperium. Times, however, they are a changing. From Londus, where Broudicca holds court to the secretive sea-faring souls of Kornwullis and onwards to Galobroc conspiracies abound.

I’ve enjoyed all of Jen Williams’ novels, but this is hands down my favourite. It just clicked with me at a fundamental level. I think it might have something to do with the Druin. A photo of me was recently described as having something called Big Druid Energy* so it’s hardly a surprise I’m drawn to their symbiotic relationship with nature and all that other good hippy-trippy stuff.

Talonsister is published by Titan Books and is available from 12th September. Highly recommended. There had better be a bloomin’ sequel in the works and it had better be soon! I can guarantee that no one wants to have a ludicrously bearded, grumpy Scottish idiot on their hands. 

After much pondering, my musical recommendation to accompany Talonsister is the soundtrack to The Last Guardian by Takeshi Furukawa. It all seems suitably griffinish** in tone. The album has a perfect balance of exciting, anthemic action and quieter more delicate moments. It was the ideal fit to me. If you are looking for something with more of a druin vibe then Songs from the Wood by Jethro Tull is a more than acceptable alternate. 

*No, I’m not sure what that means either.

**My spellchecker informs me griffinish is not a word. I beg to differ! 

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