The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding

Rating 9.7/10
This is the fantasy book we’ve all been waiting for.

773 pages. 2 days to read. 1 review to write.

On a day that changes his life forever, Aren sees his father knifed to death in the dining room of their own home by a watchman of the Iron Hand, inquisitors who deal with only the gravest threats to the Krodan Empire. Removed to a prison mine with his best friend, Cade, his conviction that somehow the vaunted Krodan justice he was raised to have total faith in will soon remedy their situation is chipped away by the brutal indifference he finds there. Getting out only proves that his life was built on foundations of falsity and betrayal. So far, so normal, right? Let’s be honest now, the blurb doesn’t sound entirely inspiring. But in a perfect example of how to under promise and over deliver, what you might think you’re getting is a typical, somewhat out-dated, young man on a quest to find himself and save the world, and what you’re actually getting is a complex, morally ambiguous, cleverly told story that has 773 pages feeling like something over way too soon. 

Picture, if you will, the great works of fantasy in the form of battered warriors, stood shoulder to shoulder, stretching into the past in a line unbreaking. In The Ember Blade, we see echoes of them all: traces in a place, a name, or the fundamentals of character, in the heroic nature of the quest, the prison break, the destiny chased, or the you-shall-not-pass moment. There’s so much in this new arrival that feels like them, but it is no bastard child. Instead, this warrior steps up to take his place beside them, inspired by what came before and offering a respectful and loving ode to their skills, while proving his own worth in every word and deed. And he’s going to do with with a wink and a smile, no less.

What’s history but a series of lessons we didn’t learn?

The Krodan Empire has an obvious connection to the Roman, bringing ‘peace’ to their neighbours by the sword in their own version of the Pax Romana. It reminds us that these conflicts are not only fancies of the author’s mind; the detailed interconnections between the two Empires enhance the veracity of the narrative, one example, of many, is the Krodan religious conversion to the Sword and the Word harking to Constantine’s conversion to Christanity. The book owes as much to Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as anything else and acts as a warning from without: all things change. As in the regions of Roman conquest, the Krodan invasion of Ossia, thirty years past, has left the population deeply divided, each person having an intensely individual response to the occupation, from collaboration to outright revolt. Aren, son a noble made rich by cooperation, is Ossian born, but raised in the Krodan style, conditioned to respect their culture, laws, and religion, while Cade is lower born and Ossian through and through. After all, the struggling classes have a much greater distance from Krodan influence, it’s much more important to indoctrinate those in society who are powerful or useful. If this seems simplistic, it’s because it’s only the set up, there to lull you into a false sense of superiority. As you keep reading you notice that every character has a nuanced, personal, layered, and complicated set of ideas about their country, the occupation, their fellow citizens, the Krodans (as individuals and as a group), the Sards (a traveller/gypsy community), the wrongs of the past, and what should be done about the future. And they change with experiences and new information, making mistakes along the way. The author makes sure that humanity = complexity, it’s exceptionally done. 

The modern has its place too. Literary wise, what’s most evident is the kind of subversion of expectations, undermining of heroic ideals, and crushing of hopes that is most often associated with grimdark. And yet, the overarching feeling is far from that, not grimdark but grim reality. Characters are far from perfect, often driven by baser emotions: bitterness, greed, jealousy, pride, fear, despair. It’s a world full of false ideologies and petty resentments, people who aim for misunderstanding instead of acceptance. The group itself is tested by its individualism- it’s no immediate band of brothers, but people with their own fears and secrets, together for convenience and necessity. They have to grow into a team, but the fact that they do, even if it takes the whole book, sets it apart from the truly grim. Honour, friendship, and oaths have value in this world, for some. Even so, there are no real white knights or black hats; a champion might have a racist aversion to the Sards and a torturer might love his family above everything. High ideals are tested, and qualified, again and again. They're well and good in theory, but when a character is forced to make choices that pits lofty ideas against the lives of their family and friends, the ‘right’ answer is less clear cut. Each character’s thoughts and actions raise questions about their personal morality, allowing you, if you dare, to truly understand who you are as such as who they really are. There’s so much in here about the use and misuse of power, slavery, racism, truth and lies that it could read as a primer for the ethical questions of contemporary society. The most important in the book is probably: what makes a hero? Modern translation: what do you, or what should you, fight for? There are some answers here, if not definitive ones. The author never allows the reader to be comfortable with assumptions or easy labels, whether you’re a freedom fighter or terrorist is frequently a matter of perspective.

When it comes to the mechanics of the writing and plot, the author has it down pat. It’s clever and challenging, but also funny. Scenes switch between intimacy and humour and horror and back again with an unsettling rapidity that feels like anything can happen. Nobody is safe. Especially when the Dreadknights turn up. The second half is somewhat slower, as more perspectives are added, and the action-packed journey sequences switch to a greater focus on themes and character development. But the explosive finale has more than enough bang for anyone. The rousing ending has the greatest appeal to classic epic fantasy- a group forged in blood and betrayal, bonded by their oaths to do what needs to be done against any and all odds. I, for one, stand with them. This is the fantasy book we’ve all been waiting for.

ARC via publisher. Thank you to Stevie Finegan and Gollancz. 

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