Title: The Copper Promise: Ghosts of the Citadel
Author: Jennifer Williams
Published: Out Now
The Citadel of Creos is a forbidden area. Strange things lurk there, ready to carve a man’s flesh or consume his soul. Everybody knows to stay away. Everybody, it seems, except Lord Frith. For Frith, the Citadel represents something other than fear: it represents the key to his vengeance, and the reclamation of his family fortune. For Wydrin, the infamous mercenary better known as the Copper Cat of Crosshaven, it represents fame and fortune - or at least enough money to keep her tankard filled for a few more weeks. For Sebastian, a disgraced Knight who’d rather not talk about it, thank you very much, it represents a distraction from his torturous exile. Bound by the Copper Promise, all three will venture past the city guards and into the catacombs to face the legends that lie within – but none will find exactly what they expect...
I’ve got a somewhat colourful history with pulp fantasy, and it all comes down to Tolkien. You see, some authors try too hard to write The Lord of the Rings. Others try just as hard to not write The Lord of the Rings. You can see the effort to be or not to be sweating out in the very prose, and yet whatever path is being followed they end up knee-deep in high fantasy all too often. Characters called “Thingy Son of Thingy”. Mystical weapons with funny names, handed down from father to son. A fallen hero. A good man goes to war. Legends coming to life. A great darkness growing in the East. Or was it the south? An evil King. Elves. Orcs. Goblins. A band of heroes going on a journey. Trope upon tired trope. It’s boring, it’s cheesy, and if you actually succeed in avoiding these traps you only end up emulating something else, like Conan. It’s hard to acknowledge your roots without drifting into direct homage or even parody. It’s hard to create something new.
I mention this to highlight the achievement that Jennifer Williams has made. In The Copper Promise, she has deftly avoided every cliché, every over-used fantasy meme, to create something beautiful: a modern pulp fantasy novel that gently shows the influences of the genre whilst gently weaving its own intriguing mythology. Within this short novella – the first in a proposed series of four, making up a novel’s worth of story by the end – Williams introduces a people with incumbent politics, a family of nobles, a system of government, an economy, a set of superstitions, a handful of legends and an implied back story all without the reader breaking a sweat (or even, truth be told, noticing until it’s too late!). There is no clunky exposition here, no bearded wizards telling ancient stories around a campfire, no long, drawn-out passages (even when the protagonists are, in fact, traversing long, drawn-out passages); there is simply a story, strong and earnest, effortlessly drawing you in.
Williams also has a way with characters. Wydrin, for example, is most specifically not a six-feet tall Valkyrie in scanty armour; she is of average height, average build, and pretty much covered up from head to toe. Her hair isn’t like a “cascade of fire”, but more of a mousey russet. Her breasts don’t cause her back problems. She has named her weapons, but only for the purposes of irony. She fights like a (copper) cat, kicks like a mule, drinks like Oliver Reed, swears like a trooper and is still human enough to make mistakes. Sebastian is a knight, but not grizzled and battle-scarred (except, perhaps, about his heart). He doesn’t spout endless diatribes about honour and decency, but he does have an alarming habit of believing the best about people. And Frith... oh, he’s special. Young and old. Rich and poor. Noble and common. A walking dichotomy with the personality and people skills of Gregory House. The kind of character that every writer wishes they’d invented first. Their dialogue dances about the page, zipping back and forth like a verbose game of tennis. Their personalities enthral. They make you care. They leave you hungry for more.
The story itself is well-paced, interesting, and laden with intrigue. From the opening moments, as Frith is tortured by insurgents who have invaded his family estate, to the somewhat creepy introduction of the charming adventurer Gallo (which you can read for yourself in this exclusive extract provided by the author herself) and the scenes in which the main protagonists creep around the abandoned (or is it?) Citadel, you can’t help but keep reading. Much like Bastian in The Neverending Story, you need to keep going. You need to complete the adventure. You need to see how things turn out in the end.
I often used to wonder what it had been like for readers in the 19th century, to read the serialised exploits of fantasy heroes in the penny dreadfuls of the day. To reach the end of a passage, to realise that the instalment had ended and force yourself to remember that you have to be patient. To wait for each new issue with bated breath, desperate to know how the story continued or ended. To have the simple pleasure of anticipation foisted upon you by some clever author. Thanks to The Copper Promise, I don’t have to wonder any more. And if you’re lucky enough to own a Kindle, you should join me. Your reward will be The Copper Promise Part II – and judging from this first novella, Jennifer Williams will not disappoint.
The Copper Promise is available from the Amazon Kindle store.