Fantastic world building, re-imagined tropes & strong characters make this a must-read. There are also giant bats and war beasts.
This is a review for the first book in Jen Williams’ Winnowing Flame Trilogy, The Ninth Rain.
I don’t often see the Winnowing Flame trilogy in the top fantasy lists, or spoken about by seasoned SFF readers. Looking into this, it seems that many US readers have been struggling to find the book (and certainly haven’t seen it advertised and recommended) whereas I’d go as far to say it seems pretty popular in the UK. As such, please don’t dismiss The Ninth Rain; it’s brilliant! If you can get your hands on it then I’d recommend you do so.
One of this book’s strength is its worldbuilding. We are introduced to the world of Sarn, which is expertly crafted. The locations revealed to us are intriguing, beautiful, foreboding, the common theme being that each is described in such a way that you are able to lose yourself in the beauty (or creepiness) of the world and its settings. I particularly love the way that Williams constructs the image of the grand, sprawling but desolately bleak city of Ebora; Wolves prowling the streets, the last Eborans clinging to life, shut away in dusty rooms. This is a city that was once the home to the grandest of the arts, the greatest warriors, poets and engineers. And now it is a city waiting to die, as is its tree god, Ygseril, lifeless and unresponsive within the hall of roots.
The world is also brought to life through a technique I really like. At the start of each chapter, we read an extract from the private letters of Lady Vincenza De Grazon (better known as Vintage, one of our main characters.)
Whilst this technique isn’t necessarily unique to this book, it gives the reader a more in depth look at both Sarn and the events and places that shape it, and the character of Vintage herself.
Speaking of whom, I imagine most readers will fall in love with her character. She’s got confidence, assertiveness and wit in abundance, but never arrogance. Vintage knows what she wants, she treats others well and she has a passion for learning about the Jure’lia, the mysterious antagonists (and alien race) of the book – it’s High Fantasy and Science Fiction wrapped into one – Her eccentric and quirky character is the driving force behind much of the book as she searches for their lost artifacts and any information about this seemingly long defeated foe. She’s also dark skinned, she likes women and she’s middle-aged, which is really refreshing in the genre, albeit one that is admittedly becoming more widely progressive and representative of readers from diverse communities. There are a number of other tropes that Williams turns upside down that I won’t reveal, but I’d encourage you to stick with the story through what I feel is possibly a slow start, better appreciated once you have already finished the book.
I actually focused on other books after casually reading the first few chapters, and although I knew I’d go back to it, it didn’t grip me from the outset. It’s at that point some readers may think they know what’s coming, or that there isn’t a strong direction the story is going in. I would encourage you to ride it out and bear with it as it does flesh out the rest of the story to come.
I feel the other two protagonists, Tormalin and Noon are equally well developed and interesting, as is the character of the secretive Hestillion, passionate and unflinching in her desire to restore Ebora to its former glory.
Tor is an Eboran hired by Vintage for her travels, a skilled swordsman (in more than one sense) with the initial bravado of a handsome, skilled, cocky young fighter who becomes more of a sympathetic character as his journey advances.
Conversely, Noon comes into her own as the story progresses and you’ve spent more time with her, learned of her hardships and inner feelings, to will her on every second of the way.
Despite the interesting characters and excellent world building, there are some features of the story that are just downright cool. There are giant bats that can be saddled and tamed. There are war beasts. There are witches that take their power from the life force of other living things, manipulating the energy into fire and destruction. There are huge alien corpses that can be explored like a labyrinth of caves.
I feel therefore that this book has the benefit of being appealing to the reader that is looking for a fun story with aliens, swords, witches and elf-like Eborans. And it will satisfy that escapism.
The Ninth Rain will also appeal to the reader who is looking for something more; there are a number of important underlying themes beneath the surface of the story (and often less subtly above the surface) – but none of them are forced – on the story, or on the reader, which to me is admirable.
If this was a standalone book I’d want a little more information about the people of Sarn, the cities and history, because despite the intriguing world building, it’s the sort of story where a further detailed look into the societies of Sarn would further enrich the experience for me personally. I’m excited to hopefully explore this through the following two books in the trilogy.
You’ll love it if: You love the thought of exploring a vibrant new world, a range of creepy antagonists and with more traditionally high fantasy elements.
It might not be for you if: You’re looking for more of a ‘grimdark’ vibe. If you like to be right in the middle of the action with a fast pace from the start. If you like your fantasy and science fiction more grounded towards realistic possibilities.