Jen Williams – The Ninth Rain

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…

Let’s not beat around the bush. I loved Jen Williams’ debut trilogy, the Copper Cat series, and I expected no less from her new series, The Winnowing Fire. And Williams delivered on that expectation in spades with this first book in the series, The Ninth Rain. I fell head over heels for Jen’s new main characters, especially the intrepid Lady Vincenza de Grazon. I did not know I needed Vintage in my life, but I really and truly did. 

Lady Vincenza “Vintage” de Grazon is that rarest of female characters in fantasy fiction: the competent, independent, older woman, who is considered neither a spinster nor a crone. And while she may be seen as eccentric and outside the norm, Vintage does not give two figs for those opinions. Instead she pursues her interest in the history of Sarn, Ebora, and the Jure’lia doggedly and at her own pleasure. I loved her sometimes acerbic wit and her willingness to be both ruthless to achieve her aims and at the same time immeasurably decent and caring. But what I loved most about her is that she was a mature woman in her forties, who is fit but no fighter, nor a mage, able to go about adventuring. At no point does anybody seriously suggest that Vintage should have been home with a husband and gaggle of kids or that her behaviour is unseemly. She is a full and valid person in her own right, which was refreshing.

If Vintage fully knows her own heart and mind, the young fell-witch Noon is someone who is still figuring out who and what she is. As a fell-witch Noon is able to channel life energy, her own or someone or something else’s, into winnow fire. But Noon cannot decide whether this ability makes her a monster or just different. As an aside, the magic system Williams has created here and the way she has built an order around it to contain and abuse both the magical power and the women who wield it was fascinating. The changing of life force into fire is dramatic enough, but coupled with the imprisonment of all identified fell-witches in the Winnowry — where they are kept and guarded by the Order of Tomas, and their fire used to create drugs and priceless steel — this system symbolises the way fear and avarice can twist how we see our fellow humans. Noon is a prime example of what this system can do to these women; the way she has blocked out the traumatic events that caused her to be brought to the Winnowry and the way she herself is torn between considering herself a monster and knowing she is not. Williams’ development of Noon from an angry, distrustful, guarded escapee to a caring, engaged member of Vintage’s entourage was wonderful and I can’t wait to see how Noon will continue to grow in the next book.

To round out the trio of heroes, Williams gives us Tormalin the Oathless. Tor is Eboran, one of the last remaining members of a mysterious, long-lived race, that has long been Sarn’s best and only defence against the invading Jure’lia. He’s a hard character to pin down. It is hard to winnow out his main motivations, beyond wanting to rescue his dormant or dying tree god Ygseril. Tor pretends to be a flippant hedonist, but once his loyalty is won, it is hard to lose. He can be both exasperating and incredibly charming and I absolutely loved him.

The final viewpoints are located in Ebora and serve as a counterweight to the roaming adventures of Vintage, Noon and Tor. One is that of Hestillion, Tor’s sister and leader of Ebora since he has left it. She is a tragic figure, who is fighting to save her people, but also hopes to gain a place in history by being the one to do so. The only close relative to remain with her in Ebora is her cousin Aldasair, a studious young man who has drifted from the world into a dreamy solitude, more or less ignoring the devastation around him. He is pulled back in to active life by Hestillion’s schemes to revive Ygseril. Aldasair is the hopeful mirror to Hestillion’s descent into despair. Where she ends up making choices that might spell her own doom, Aldasair seems to come out of his despair and move back into working for a better future.

Jen Williams writes kick-ass fantasy adventures with a liberal dose of humour and some definite pathos too. But no matter how well-paced the narrative or how compelling her plots, it’s her characters that snag my heart every time. Williams makes me care for each of them, even if I’m not quite sure that they deserve it (Hest, I’m looking at you) and I can’t wait to discover what will happen to them next. After the bombshell ending of this first book, one that ends in tragedy and hope, the next book of The Winnowing Fire will be an automatic must-read for me when it comes out, hopefully next year. For now, get in on this marvellous series early and go grab your copy of The Ninth Rain now. I highly recommend it.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.