Chris Wooding’s fairy tale horror book Poison was one of my absolute favourites as a child, so I was keen to see how he’d do turning his hand to classic fantasy. Unfortunately, this one let me down, a lot…
Book: The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding
Read before: No
Ownership: E-ARC provided via NetGalley free of charge. All opinions my own.
I’m a big fan of classic swords-and-sorcery fantasy, though I prefer not to veer into the grimdark that’s been such a trend in the last ten years or so. I’m always excited when modern authors try it, because I figure they’ll be slightly more up to date on the racism and misogyny fronts than the 70s and 80s stuff, and I expect them to subvert tropes as well as utilise them. Sadly, I’ve never read such a boring fantasy as this.
Almost all of my annoyance about this book was due to the main characters, Aren and Cade. I’ve come across some eminently slappable teenage fantasy heroes in my time (Garion in Pawn of Prophecy, anyone?) but I can get past that if they a) have interesting surroundings and b) grow up a bit. Aren and Cade do not mature, at all. At the end of the book they’re still the same dumb, hero-worshipping boys, prone to sulking and stupidity. I hated them both so much. I was particularly disappointed by the conversation thrown in towards the end of the book where they decide, in a few lines, that their friendship is worth more than the girl they both have a crush on – ie, classic bros before hoes. It was patronising, and weird, considering that the events of the book are largely kickstarted by Aren’s inappropriate crush directly causing his dad to be stabbed to death. You’d think he’d maybe squash those hormones down a bit.
And that’s the thing. These characters don’t learn, and we never get much of a break from their viewpoint. Aren and Cade are dragged out of their hometown to a labour camp. They escape the labour camp only to be immediately dragged away by a mysterious band of rebels and then dragged on through various challenging circumstances to the plot climax. Then they’re dragged through the climax kicking and screaming. They do NOTHING by themselves. They are wholly useless. I would rather have read about any of the other people in the rebel gang – except they, an experienced bunch of soldiers, etc, also begin to suffer from idiot-itis when put near our heroes. One of the few female characters is a druid, and she has some cool prophecy stuff going on, hanging out with her dog and a big stick, until she turns up to join the gang, heals one of the boys, then promptly falls into a coma for pretty much the rest of the book. It was just lazy characterisation, I felt, where everyone served the plot rather than being the heroes of their own story.
And that’s the thing. This could have been so much more. The world-building is so lacking that I could only tell you the names of two places, and one of those took over the other one. There’s an outcast traveller race that play music and tell stories, and a race that tattoo themselves, speak poor English, and like to fight. There’s no exploration of the magic system – just poof, magic’s done. After a diet of Sanderson’s magic systems and Lynch’s incredible characters, this comes off feeling like the bones of a book rather than anything rich enough to enjoy. Unfortunately, that didn’t mean this was a thin book – it is rather long (824 pages in paperback). I can’t tell you much of what happened between the prison break and the final battle, because honestly, not much did – and certainly nothing to merit that page count. I’ve never been a fan of ‘faffing about in the woods’ fantasy, so this might be on me, but still.
If you’re the sort of person who loves watching stupid teenage boys be best bros and get swept along to glory kind of accidentally, then you might well love this. If you like your fantasy nuanced, feminist, or in any way clever, well, this probably isn’t your best bet. Sorry, but I’ll stick to re-reading Poison! Two out of five cats.