Book Review: The Copper Promise by Jen Williams

14 May

Sebastian and Wydrin are mercenaries and adventurers, longtime friends and partners, doing jobs for coin in a way and manner familiar to a lot of sword and sorcery fiction. Sebastian is the big guy, a defrocked paladin of a mountain god. Wydrin is an infamous rogue of the port city of Crosshaven known as the Copper Cat, deadly with two blades. The opening of the book starts off straightforwardly enough, with the pair hired by a deposed noble to break into a magical vault. A magical vault that contains a long imprisoned scaly God and followers that the pair inadvertently free.

Oops.

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When you release a Dragon God and her seemingly undefeatable army of dragonwomen, what can a pair of mercenaries do but try and clean up the mess they started? Even as their employer still looks for power to reclaim his ancestry, and the rest of the world is hardly idle in the face of an existential threat to their existence.

The Copper Promise is a fixup of a quartet of novellas by Jen Williams.

The “wunza” nature of the two main protagonists is a classic in sword and sorcery going all the way back to Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser (and even older, if you really want to go into the oeuvre of writers like C.L. Moore and Robert E Howard).  Sebastian maps onto the big man Fafhrd, and the Copper Cat Wydrin maps onto The Mouser fairly easily. They have a great dynamic together and the novel is best when both are on the page together, fighting, bickering, and adventuring together.  Williams cleverly drops a line that makes it clear why there is no unresolved sexual tension between them, a fact that becomes plot relevant later in the series as we learn more of just why Sebastian turned from a paladin to a sword-for-hire.  Throughout the book, we get a good sense of just how competent the pair are, and of their reputations and skills.

The novel also has a good cast of secondary characters. Lord Aaron Firth, the mercenaries’ employer and in a very real way the plot driver of events in the narrative, is a conflicted and interesting character. Other characters, including unexpected ones given events and the structure of the world, round out the cast. One of the most interesting sequences is getting a peek into the Dragon woman army itself, as a couple of the formerly faceless warriors start to develop something their mother could never have predicted: autonomy.

The novella structure works for and against the story. It does lead to rising and falling action in crests throughout the book. After the initial bang of the release of the Dragon Goddess, we don’t get a climax like that until the end of the book, leading to a middle that does have climaxes of its own, although not quite as large ones. The four-story structure does allow us to move around the world in relatively breezy fashion and get us to other adventures self contained within the large narrative of correcting the wrong and mistake Sebastian and Wydrin have made.

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I think the overall work is strongest when it hews closest to its sword and sorcery roots. When the story takes epic turns, especially in the final novella, the writing is still good, but the story, descriptions, and action aren’t quite as strong as when we see Sebastian and Wydrin handle things on a smallball, gritty sort of scale. Wydrin’s solo adventure in her hometown of Crosshaven in the third novella, for example, is some of the strongest writing in the entire book. And if you are going to go traversing across a large landscape, a map to understand the stakes better (just how far the army has come and just how far the adventurers have to go) would improve the experience.

The Copper Promise entertains in pulp fashion, yes, but the author is a product of her time and place and has taken the pulp excitement of writers past and made a mark as a writer of the “new” sword and sorcery. It’s not just diversifying the protagonists in terms of sexuality and gender, but it’s a recognition of diversity across her fantasy world, and a sense of consequences and real depth to the world.

The ending to The Copper Promise both wraps up this story with a bow and leaves things very open for sequels (one is already published: The Iron Ghost, out now in the UK).  Based on my fun experience with The Copper Promise, I am strongly inclined to pick it up. And I am even more desirous of a US publisher getting in on the action so that Williams’ work can more deservedly easily reach US audiences.

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