The Ninth Rain is the first in a new fantasy series from Jen Williams. Her previous series, the Copper Cat trilogy was a charming piece of swashbuckling fantasy; the short version is that this new work is just as entertaining and intriguing a read.
The world of The Ninth Rain is one shaped by conflicts, both internal and external. The external are devastating; creatures falling in waves, devouring everything they touch, slowly forming the land into something different, hollowing out people and using them as puppets. These are global conflagrations, their scars left in the earth, and in the scattered wreckage of the war hulks that poison the land around them. The people of this world have an ancient enemy, and although it’s now believed broken, or at least quiescent, there’s no denying the impact that these ‘Rains’ have had.
That said, this is a world with plenty of other issues. The cities of the Eborans, the long lived champions against the Rains, are broken. The Eborans themselves are decimated by plague, and eyed with a mixture of horror and suspicion by their neighbours. The mythical war-beasts they used in battle during the Rains have vanished. Whilst the Eboran empire falls to its knees, other polities fight against the rising mutation of the land by wreckage from the Rains – and a religious order holds sway over a group of women who can channel life from everything around them and make, well, mostly fire. The fey-witches are, they say, dangerous, and have to be controlled – that in doing so, the order makes tidy profit, is purely coincidental.
Into this world of shattered history step our three main characters. The first is Vincenza ‘Vintage’ de Grazon – sometime Lady, full time adventurer. Middle-aged, intelligent and rather feisty, she’s also an antiquarian, travelling across the world to investigate the artifacts left behind by the Rains, to try and understand what it is that brings them down upon the world. She has a streak of ruthlessness, matched by a strong sense of fair play and empathy. Vintage is an extrovert, seemingly strong, confident and riding a wave of self-assurance which batters aside a lot of the barriers that her rank and funding don’t. Watching her mix bluff energy and enthusiasm with incisive intellect is delightful.
Vintage is joined by one of the last of the Ebor, Tormalin the Oathless. He’s a man on the run from the broken shadow of his people. He’s now seemingly interested in decent wine, warm beds (his and others) and other aspects of the epicurean lifestyle. On the other hand, he’s extremely competent with an extremely lethal sword, and is Vintage’s long-suffering partner and/or bodyguard. If her past hides a few dark secrets, his own, wrapped in the decline of his people in plague and madness, is no more difficult. Tormalin embodies tragedy, and his efforts to break free of the mould, away from his people as heroes, and their new reality as diminished monsters are fascinating – you can’t help rooting for him, even when he’s being crass, arrogant, or just plain wrong – because he can also be warm, charming, and rather clever.
The last of the trio is one of the fell-witches. She’s first seen in confinement at the monastery which controls these practitioners, under less than ideal conditions. Where Vintage is world-wise, she’s an ingénue, albeit one with focus, determination, and the ability to summon fireballs out of thin air. Where both Vintage and Tormalin are clear, at least, in who they are, our fey-witch has never really had the chance to find out. She’s always been a thing – dangerous, valuable, lethal – and never a person. Her journey is one of discovering who it is that she wants to become, and that understanding of her personhood is handled with raw and genuine emotional depth.
I want to characterise the plot as fantasy archaeology with fireballs, and it absolutely is that. But it’s other things as well. It’s the story of family, for example, both those you’re thrown in with – as the group struggles to work together and solve the issues confronting them – and your own blood. It’s the story of the collapse of a great civilisation into blood and death, and the sacrifices that made that possible It’s got the potential to go into epic territory, with war beasts, great evils and disturbing villains – but also the petty evils of bureaucracy, and the petty triumphs of friendship.
Overall, this is a delightful, absorbing start to a new series for Williams; it’s got a lot of great ideas, intelligent things to say, and a cracking adventure running through them.