The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams

The Blurb On The Back:

The city of Ebora once glittered with gold. Now its streets are stalked by wolves. Tormalin the Oathless has no taste for waiting to die while the realm of his ancestors falls to pieces – talk about a guilt trip.

When eccentric explorer, Lady Vincenza ‘Vintage’ de Grazon, offers him employment, he sees a way out.  Even when they are joined by a fugitive witch with a tendency to set things on fire, the prospect of facing down monsters and retrieving artefacts is preferable to the abomination left behind.

But not everyone is willing to let the empire collapse, and the adventurers are soon drawn into a tangled conspiracy of magic and war.

The Jure’lia are coming, and the Ninth Rain must fall …  

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Several hundred years ago the Jure’lia (a race of insectoid-like creatures) invaded Sarn for the eighth time.  Commanded by a queen who wants only to destroy and obliterate every living thing, the Jure’lia were beaten back once again by the Eborans (a race known for their beauty) as their tree-god Ygseril shed fruit – the Eighth Rain – that turned into war-beasts, which the Eborans used to join with other people of Sarn and drive back the Jure’lia.  But victory came at a price: Ygersil’s defeat of the Jure’lia queen cost its own life and now the tree-god is dead, plunging the Eborans into crisis because by consuming Ygersil’s sap, they were essentially immortal; without, they face mortality.  The Eborans discover that drinking blood will extend their lives but by murdering other races for it, they are the subject of hatred and fear and in the end discover that even with blood, they will still fall sick with a terrible illness and die.

50 years ago, Tormalin the Oathless saw that Ebora was doomed and decided to strike out and see the world, leaving his sister Hestillion behind with her futile efforts to reach and revive Ygersil.  His wanderings bring him into contact with the eccentric (and rich) Lady Vincenza ‘Vintage’ de Grazon – an explorer who wants to know more about the Jure’lia and the blight that they’ve left in the world (including parasite sprites that can rip a person apart with one touch) by studying the artefacts and remnants of the Behemoth craft that were left behind after the previous invasions.  While they’re out in the wild lands they run into Noon, a witch who has recently escaped from the Winnowry (a prison for witches run by a religious order that harvests the witches’ power and uses it to make a drug).

Together they decide to visit a man with a Jure’lian artefact that Vintage is certain will provide the answers she craves but something is stirring in Sarn – there are signs that the Jur’elia are set to return and with Ygersil dead, there will be no Ninth Rain to defeat them …

Jen Williams’s fantasy novel (the first in a trilogy) incorporates innovative twists on traditional fantasy elements (including vampires, witchcraft and religious oppression) and neatly incorporates a science fiction element to its antagonists, which I found refreshing. However there are some pacing problems (especially the info dumps), Vintage’s mannerisms were overdone for me and I had quibbles about the ending but would check out the sequel.

The main reason to read this book is the way Williams attempts to do something different with that tired old fantasy stalwart: the vampire.  Her Eborans have all the beauty and coldness and sexual ability that you expect but I enjoyed their reason for drinking blood and especially how it turns out to be a curse rather than a saviour.  I also enjoyed the way she uses Tormalin and Hestillion to examine the crisis that’s overtaken Ebora – both religious and in terms of the basic running of the country – and I also thought Williams incorporated the supernatural element (specifically their dreamwalking, which also tied into an overarching element of the plot in a way that I would have liked to have seen a little more made from but which was nevertheless a really clever idea).

Tormalin himself is an interesting protagonist – world worn and facing his own mortality he hates that he needs the blood (and has at least come up with a humane way of getting it involving some barter with a couple of ladies willing to utilise his highly developed sexpertise) but is too scared to let it go.  I wanted more of his relationship with Hestillion than what’s there on the page – especially towards the end of the book because I felt that it would have fleshed out a key decision that Hestillion takes.  This is a shame because Hestillion is also an interesting character, completely driven to try and bring her god back to life and save her people, she is cold and determined in her execution and has an interesting storyline that offers a lot of potential for the sequel.

Vintage forms the spine of the novel as it’s her determination to find out more about the Jure’lia that makes the three protagonists set off on their travels and its extracts from her journals and letters that provide a lot of the background information.  I was in two minds about the use of her papers – on the one hand it does give some interesting background but equally because it’s used at the head of a large number of chapters, it does feel like an info dump at times that got in the way of the pacing and offset the balance of the book. This is a shame because I do think she’s a great character – a wealthy black woman with a genuine thirst for science and knowledge because she recognises the damage that the Jure’lia have done to the land – and a revelation about her background in the final quarter was a neat twist, although I did find her mannered way of talking was a little overdone at times and there were a couple of instances where it irritated me.

The final protagonist is Noon, a witch who has spent most of her life imprisoned in the Winnowry after a dreadful event in her childhood alerted its agents to her power, being forced to discharge her power in order to make a lucrative drug called akaris.  Williams has a lot of fun with the religious oppression going on here and I found it interesting that the religious order was founded by a man but is run by a woman and it’s particularly chilling to discover how the order turns some of the witches into agents willing to do its bidding. I also greatly enjoyed the way Noon is able to access her power (essentially taking life force from other people or living things around her) and Williams neatly links her back to the people of the wild lands, which ties in with the plot developments.  I wasn’t too enamoured with the romance that develops between Noon and Tormalin – mainly because it’s so heavily signposted and I found them a little lacking in chemistry and I thought it was a shame to saddle Noon with this, given that she could be interesting and strong in her own right.

Williams neatly incorporates SF elements with the fantasy of the Jure’lia, which I won’t spoil but actually formed some of my favourite scenes in the book – especially when Vintage, Noon and Tormalin manage to get inside an abandoned Behemoth.  Williams is clearly having a lot of fun here and I thought the way she incorporates her SF elements was clever and seamless and promises a lot for the rest of the trilogy.  That said, I did find the Jure’lia queen a little underdeveloped, which was perhaps inevitable given how much is going on in this book but given one of the plot developments, I suspect that this will be picked up in the next book.

All in all there’s an awful lot going on in this book with Williams cramming so much world-building and character set-up into it, that the pacing does sag in places.  I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing though because with the basics all laid out and so many innovative and interesting ideas on display here, there’s an awful lot of promise for the sequel and I will definitely be checking it out.

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