A review by leontiy
The Iron Ghost by Jen Williams


The absolute best thing about Jen Williams – aside from being hilarious, entirely aware of the genre she writes in (allowing her to make and break rules however she pleases), and one of the best new writers of SFF at the moment – is the fact that her books are classics. Not, “they’ll one day be classics”, but rather, they already are. The way she subverts the expected tropes and themes of SFF, introducing new elements alongside and welcoming tried and tested (and fun!) old ones, is nothing short of sheer poetry.

Never mind the fact that somehow she manages to discuss several relevant issues through her work, without ever becoming lecturing or trite. I’m talking about gender stereotypes and race and sexuality: all the good stuff that I’d honestly thought all the proper and serious writers had decided they were too aloof for and left those topics to the up and coming YA SFF, for whom these topics are their literary bread and butter.

I’ve been growing increasingly more disappointed and distant from regular fantasy in the last year or so. But never far away from Williams.

The Copper Promise was sensational and I loved every second. So when I got my hands on a galley of The Iron Ghost, I was instantly transformed into a garbling mess with excitement. That excitement never really left, because even after turning that final page, the book didn’t leave me.

The Copper Promise ended in a most marvelous fashion, reminiscent of Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, where the summer has been whiled away rolling dice and saving the world; the campaign is over, but already the seeds are planted for the next.

Naturally, The Iron Ghost begins in a very casual fashion, almost episodic in how we find ourselves in the company of the now Blackfeather Three of Wydrin, Frith and Sebastian. This feeling of a new and fresh adventure is welcome in a trilogy, definitely lacking a sagging middle that can sometimes pull down a second book. There is enough grounding reference to the first book so that more forgetful readers will feel comfortable being thrown headlong into a new adventure with the trio, but not so much that The Iron Ghost wastes time reiterating what the majority of readers already know. It’s a small peeve when writers compensate for readers by explaining what happened only one book before. It clogs the flow of the writing and slows the whole system down.

We find ourselves witness to several new developments in the lives of the Blackfeather Three, including the awkwardly budding romance between Wydrin and Frith, the mysterious force driving the hand of a young assassin – whose orders are ultimately bound to the same thread of fate as theirs – and the movements of Sebastian’s brood army as they try to adjust to life after Y’ruen.

Furthermore, as the Blackfeather Three venture to faraway shores on their latest paying job, new obstacles present themselves along with new foes and allies. Only sometimes, it might be hard to tell friend from enemy, and when things come down to the wire, choices are hard and sacrifices might need to be made. Needless to say, when she accepts the job for them, little does Wydrin expect that she will be changed forever, in ways she can hardly understand. Their presence in the cold mountain passes, close to the boarders of a cold-blooded mountain people, could signal doom and destruction for the rest of the world.

Because something has been sleeping for a long time, something that is not quite as dead as the world thought. And now this power has found a way to rise again, to return to the world where old plans and long-dead machinations will be awoken, given life anew. And this time, Frith’s new magic, Wydrin’s blind, dumb luck, and even Sebastian’s blood sisters might not be enough to quell it. Magic is stirring, and with it, the threat of a new power, one bent on domination and destruction. Join the brilliant Blackfeather Three in a new land and a new heap of trouble. Between golems, old enemies whose grudges still hold true, and the desperation of war and racial, spiritual tension, whatever is making Frith so curt and distant will become the last thing on the Copper Cat’s mind.

Outline and juicy implications over, I’m going to jump straight to just what made this book shine for me.

Sebastian’s homosexuality is a huge YES PLEASE for me, because he’s a Knight; he’s kind and generous and gentle and noble and all those things that Lancelot wishes he’d been. And he’s gay. This strong, self-assured, noble Knight, a la the kind on white chargers and frequent denizen of fairy tales, is gay. That’s like the captain of the groan-groan Football team being gay. It’s huge. Neither bookish nor unassuming nor flamboyant and kamp – just Sebastian and just gay. I won’t spoil things, but the relationships Sebastian explores in The Iron Ghost are pieces of pure yesness. His friendship with Wydrin is greatly built upon and his gentle tenderness towards her is almost sibling in presentation. And it is perfect. Friendship is still alive and well between the sexes and Jen Williams knows all about it.

In addition, Sebastian goes through his own difficulties, acting both as you’d expect and as you wouldn’t, and thereby being entirely human in the process. Top marks for Williams.

Without saying too much, on the subject of being thrilled to pieces with Williams’ inclusiveness, I want to hint at what is, in the very least, a romance that crosses ethnic lines, and at most, becomes literally a cross-species/cross-race (depending on whether we decide to see humans as race, and the various subcategories as ethnicities instead of races in and of themselves, thereby all being human, or if the notion of “species” works better when considering relationships such as these personally. I prefer race, and anything nonhuman, I consider a separate race) relationship. An elf and human together is, in fact, just this manner of relationship, by virtue of both belonging to different races. Humans are not elves and vice versa. So the introduction of cold-blooded people whose description is most definitely not “human”? I’m calling two races here and letting out a big hip hooray.

Another aspect of Williams’ work that makes me float about happily, is the gender reversal of Wydrin and Frith. She is more typically masculine than he is, and he is more typically feminine than she is. Of course this is all based on assumed facts about gender and gender roles (which are a pile of tosh) but you know where I’m coming from and where I’m going.

Wydrin occupies the more traditional role of the masculine and Frith, the feminine. And this means so much because Frith is me: he’s quieter and reserved and definitely softer of feature that our dear Wydrin. He’s the noble (so, traditionally speaking, the princess, if you will) whilst Wydrin is the dashing rogue come to crash Frith’s neat and noble life, sweeping him away into adventure. Yes, Frith has his own agency, his own story, but the roles in their very base form are expressed well through this example.

The importance of feminism in SFF has two sides, and one I wish was talked about more: the fact that feminism is about men, too. It is about men being allowed to be the princesses. Never mine the “allowed” part – sometimes men are the princesses and women are the knights and the rogues. Taken as two separate concepts, the masculine and the feminine are merely traits, personality tenancies, aspects of a type of person. Moreover, one person can have aspects of both. They can be equally balanced between to two, or favour one more heavily. I feel that Williams knows all about this, and tackles it like a pro. All casual talent and “I’m an amazing writer” style.

I could literally go on forever about this, so I’ll curb the rampant gender discussion and save that for an article at some other point!

The Iron Ghost is sensational. It is exactly what I want fantasy to be right now: it is classic fantasy for 2015. It is where Tolkien and Eddings and Hobb have led us. Jen Williams is a classic: she delivers witty and elegant prose, deep and meaningful characters and a plot full of adventure and excitement and feeling. The Iron Ghost promises companionship and love, action and humour, and naturally, a struggle to save the world. It promises everything and delivers more.

If you aren’t already reading Williams, you should start. She is a master of the craft who doesn’t just hit the nail on the head – because the nail is already sunk too deep and she’s put the hammer down, the blow delivered before you even lifted the book.Through confident, vibrant prose and complex and relatable characters, The Iron Ghost is utterly unputdownbable and has set the bar very high for SFF in 2015.

Have at it, authors, because Williams is in the building – and she’s made herself comfortable.