She’s an amiably violent thief who likes stabbing! He’s a knight thrown out of his order for a crime that wasn’t actually a crime! Their client is a horribly crippled noble planning horrific vengeance! They fight crime!
Jen Williams’ The Copper Promise didn’t so much arrive as kick the door in and demand to know why it wasn’t already drunk. Wydrin, Sebastian and Frith are one of those central groups that can entertain you just by standing there. Williams has immense fun with them from the start and so do you, making the book feel less like an introduction and more like catching up with old friends. You still get everything you need to figure out the world but it’s presented with such charm and confidence that you just assume, Ford Prefect-like, that you must have been here before.
And that’s the first knife the book has up its sleeve.
The second is when you find out just what Wydrin and Sebastian have been hired to do. I’m a sucker for fantasy crime novels, and am openly amazed there aren’t more given that The Hobbit’s central plot could safely be retitled The Lonely Mountain Job. You can have a lot of fun with people who are thieves from one direction or mercenaries from another and that’s exactly what the book does. They’ve done these jobs before, they’ve usually gone well and the pair of them have complete faith in themselves. Frith? Not so much, but he’s paying. The whole thing bounces along quite happily as they embark on an extended piece of vault robbery and then people start dying.
What they find in the vault is the second knife the book has up its sleeve. Its chthonic horror mixed with fantasy in a way that’s fresh and serves both very well. The sheer scale of what they find is disturbing enough but when it starts waking up it becomes clear just how bad things are going to get. What’s even more disturbing is how little at least one of the characters cares.
Knife number three.
Williams writes real people. They react the way real people do, sidling up to problems or just hoping they go away. They carry emotional and physical damage the way real people do and they wear masks of perception and self-belief just like real people do. Even better they’ve clearly never read fantasy novels before. When they inadvertently unleash something truly horrible their first response is not to immediately fight it but to run as far away as possible. Even better, the world is so large that it takes a while for the awfulness to reach them. They can pretend things are normal for a while as, further down the coast, the army starts to march…It’s a brilliant, realistic way to do fantasy fiction and it rounds every character out while still keeping them true to type. You like these people, even Frith, and you want them to be okay. Their struggles to be okay, and true to themselves, oh and paid are what really drives the book. Sebastian’s clash with institutionalized homophobia is brilliantly and pragmatically handled and Frith’s emotional journey isn’t one he likes embarking on although, like all bad meidicine, turns out to be vital to his survival.
But it’s Wydrin you remember. The motormouth thief with a never ending fondness for coin and violence who, as the book goes on, finds herself pushed to her limits. I’ve rarely seen cunning written this well before and Williams explores Wydrin’s growing realization she may not be able to talk herself out of this with dry humor and compassion. In fact you can tell she’s really fond of all these characters as she takes huge pains to show you the world from their point of view. Even the monsters.
And knife four.
No one here gets off easy, especially the evil ones. Williams cuts between her heroes and the army grown to chase them down and in doing so creates a brittle, fine china tension that crackles through to the final battle. These things are inhuman, but…they know they are and their stumbling moves towards individuality are deeply disturbing. They’re something new, they know they are and most importantly they want to know why. It adds a very different subtext to the beautifully handled closing battle and also sets up what’s to come. Because all of them, Wydrin, Frith and poor, idiotic, good hearted Sebastian are all far from done. The end of the world is, after all, just the end of the beginning.
The Copper Promise is brilliant. It’s the most exuberant, light on its feet, smarter than it wants you to think novel on the shelves this year. Pick it up, before it picks your pocket and sells your stuff back to you.