The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding (The Darkwater Legacy #1)

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. 

9.7 / 10 - Emma Davis

I’ll cut to the quick: Chris Wooding’s The Ember Blade is one of the best starts to an epic fantasy series that I’ve ever read. This book is a massive 800-page tome, yet it stays economical in its scope. It is a story filled with thoughtful insights, rousing battles, tense chase scenes, richly drawn characters, and tender moments of friendship and loss. It is a coming of age story, a desperate act of revolution, a struggling morality play, and a meditation on family and loyalty. And above all, it is a story of hope and determination, and the sacrifices made to change the course of a nation.

After the first half of the book focuses on outward conflict, the story shifts focus towards the interpersonal relationships amongst the group. This is really when the book begins to shine: the friendships feel natural and lifelike, but Wooding really excels at depicting broken relationships within the group. There is pure hatred and strife between several of the characters, yet all sides of these relationships feel justified. Each character's journey is given ample time to breathe and grow, and it was incredibly satisfying to see how far our group has come over the course of the story. There are no less than 11 protagonists in our group of heroes, plus some additional side characters that help give depth to other side of the conflict, and no one is neglected from their time in the spotlight. One of the more satisfying decisions I encountered was how Wooding sometimes chose to tell a chapter's story through the eyes of a secondary character, instead of the person who's is the central figure at the moment. We're able to still view the major events of the chapter, but we also learn how the actions affect others in the group, and what emotions and reactions their decisions have influenced.

In most of my book reviews, I like to share some semblance of the plot: describing the main characters, or the overall conflict that's driving the story forward. I will not do that here. I think it will be most rewarding if you go into this book completely blind and let the author piece together this world in your mind. Wooding has woven a tale that perfectly balances a wide cast of engaging, lifelike characters, set inside a richly-developed world that you experience through the characters' eyes.

This is an all-ages fantasy tale with more than a few instances of adult themes. There are traumatic moments that are gleaned from scenes of emotional turmoil as much as character deaths. I audibly gasped several times during the Misson Impossible-style finale that covered the final 200 pages of the story. And when I turned the final page, wiping a curious amount of wetness around my eyes, I felt a deep sense satisfaction and gratification of a story brilliantly told. This is only the first volume of a planned trilogy, but it also functions as an incredible standalone work of fantasy. In short, The Ember Blade is everything I could possibly want in an epic fantasy novel, and so much more. Buy this book as soon as it is available.

9.5 / 10 - Adam Weller

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

Reviews by and Adam Weller

The Ember Blade reader reviews

9.6/10 from 1 reviews

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