The Poison Song by Jen Williams

I would like to thank Headline for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Headline

Price - £14.99 Paperback

Published - Out Now

All is chaos. All is confusion. The Jure’lia are weak, but the war is far from over.

Ebora was once a glorious city, defended by legendary warriors and celebrated in song. Now refugees from every corner of Sarn seek shelter within its crumbling walls, and the enemy that has poisoned their land won’t lie dormant for long.

The deep-rooted connection that Tormalin, Noon and the scholar Vintage share with their Eboran war-beasts has kept them alive so far. But with Tor distracted, and his sister Hestillion hell-bent on bringing ruthless order to the next Jure’lia attack, the people of Sarn need all the help they can get.

Noon is no stranger to playing with fire and knows just were to recruit a new and powerful army. But even she underestimates the epic quest that is to come. It is a journey wrought with pain and sacrifice – a reckoning that will change the face of Sarn forever.

I’ve been reviewing Jen Williams’ Winnowing Flame (starting with the glorious and well deserved British Fantasy Award winning The Ninth Rain and last year’s tense The Bitter Twins) it’s been a fascinating epic saga of a world where a mysterious alien race known as the Jure’lia repeatedly arise and attempt to take over the world. In the past only the slightly vampiric elves known as the Eborans could defeat them using their specially grown and mind-linked war beasts but the Eborans fell and now only a small group stand in the way.  When we last met them a breathing space was managed but everyone knew a final battle was looming.  Very pleased to say there is an extraordinary satisfactory conclusion to one of the best epic fantasies out this decade.

The group that came together to see the Jure’lia is battered by their experiences in the Bitter Twins. Tor feels strangely weak; Noon has decided it’s time to go on her own attack against the Winnowry the group of witches who captured any young girl showing the signs of magic and Vintage is feeling chastened by the loss of a war-beast egg and betrayal by her lover. The Eboran Alasdair is meanwhile worried about his lover Bern who has a piece of Jure’lia crystal linking him with their strange disturbing hive-mind.  They’re not ready for a major battle and there is a question of exactly how you can finally stop an armada of ever replicating creatures who themselves are now being increasingly aided by Tor’s sister Hestillion and her own warped dragon Celaphon. The start of this book feels like the two sides racing to get to the best idea to wipe the other out once for all.

A lot of plot points Williams has grown over the series are finally coming to fruition and give us an opportunity to explore more of Sarn and its history for the last time. A key theme is the impact the Winnowry has had on the world.  We get a new character Agent Chenlo who seems far more focused on protecting the feel witches under her care rather than the desire for more power that we’ve seen to date. There is theme of how many women who could have achieved great things just like Noon is doing have had their futures taken away. Here the group now freed from the Winnowry’s control get a chance to show what they’re capable of. And Chenlo proves an even match for even Vintage in terms of humour and intelligence as they trek to trace the last egg under the control of the clever ex-winnowry agent.  Noon gets to explore more of the Winnowing flame itself and realises that like the Eborans its history may be more alien than originally thought and Noon could access even more power if she can accept the price.

This first half of the book sets up the finale’s two impressive set piece battles that make the second half race along. There is a tense mission to make a strong strategic move that impressively links all these elements together before a very brutal stand against the odds as the Jure’lia make a desperate final attack against Ebora whatever the cost. These highlight the three major strengths that Williams brings to the table in her work – a world populated with amazing and intelligent creatures that can scare and make you cheer, stunning set-piece action that flows off the page and most of all her stand-out characters. Having been in our heads over the three novels this group (even the villainous Hestillion) all feel real; their motivations make sense; their interactions can be heart-warming, frustrating and sometimes laugh out loud funny. That emotional journey they’ve all been on is they key to why I think this novel is so successful and it’s fascinating to remember where they all were when the story started three years ago.  This makes us also extremely fearful that the cost of victory for some will be high…

The Poison Song is a fitting emotional conclusion to a great series that clearly shows respect to epic fantasy’s traditions but also gives us something new and modern. There are not many fantasies that have so many female and gay characters in key roles and its just accepted. This feels like truly 21st century epic fantasy and I hope inspires many future writers and readers as to what the genre is capable of.