The February Hodderscape Review Project book is The Copper Promise, by Jen Williams.
100 words: Overall
I’m going to come right out, in typically dour fashion, and say that I’m not a fan of epic sword and sorcery fantasy. This book is split into four novellas, and the first one deals with a party of adventurers that go to explore deep into a citadel, conquering monsters on the way to find the treasure at the centre, with a secret dragon. Dungeons. And dragons. One dragon. Some fairly inventive monsters along the way but also some bandying about with typical characters – a Paladin-by-another-name; his sidekick Wydrin, a rogue-by-another-name; their mate Gallo; and the tortured, disguised Lord Frith.
100 words: the world
All this thinking about high fantasy tropes might just undermine what Jen Williams has done with the book. First of all, although it’s a world populated by royals, peasants, priests, and adventurers (PCs and NPCs, essentially), it’s an interesting, well-thought-out, fully realised world. The monsters are new. The magic system is well thought out & generally makes sense – except the bits Williams glosses over to make the plot move forward. It’s impressive stuff she’s done, and the world is built up as the reader goes through the story, avoiding information dumps and keeping the story going. Well done, Jen Williams.
100 words: on character and growth
One of the biggest criticisms of the up-to-the-90s style of dungeons-and-dragons fantasy was that the characters had it too easy. You knew the cleric would turn up in time, and there would be little in the way of growth or change in them. Williams doesn’t shy away from making her characters make difficult choices – the old “let one die so you can save ten”, or “sell your soul to save the world” style. At the same time, she lets her characters grow, change, makes the choices they make affect them, all while keeping the book fast-paced and fun. Not easy.
100 words: on women
There aren’t a lot of women in this book, which is unfortunate. There’s Wydrin, AKA the Copper Cat, a loveable rogue who kisses her two daggers and a snarky aside. I’d like to have seen more flesh on Wydrin’s bones: she has her own character journey and, like a cat, always seems to land on her feet with luck on her side. Aside from her, most of the characters are NPCs: either as background decoration or as signposts, enabling action. I wanted to know what happened when Wydrin had to face real loss on the scale of Frith & Sebastian’s.
100 words: conclusion
The Copper Promise isn’t going to bring me back into the fold of Epic Fantasy, of dungeons, dragons, questing knights, paladins and rogues with snarky one-liners. It takes a deft hand and real skill to create an engaging, entertaining epic fantasy read in the style and readability of Dragonlance but with real characters and a fleshed out, honest, and fully-realised world. Williams’ vivid imagination and worldbuilding will take her far, along with a real talent for dialogue, leaving this curmudgeon behind in a rainy London. The Copper Promise isn’t my cup of tea, but it is an excellent cup nonetheless.