The Poison Song by Jen Williams (The Winnowing Flame Trilogy #3)

All the stars for this. ALL. 

First, a warning. This review is spoiler free for this book, but not The Ninth Rain or The Bitter Twins. Look away now if you haven’t read them. Or better yet, go buy them and come back when you’re done. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

For those that have read the first two of the series, you’ll know that things are looking dire for pretty much everyone. Except maybe the Jure’lia, who are busy varnishing the land and killing as many of its human inhabitants as possible. If you thought their methods were stomach-churningly bad before, just wait. I, for one, don’t like bugs. If someone told me before reading these that I’d love a series focused through the lens of a bug invasion, one that includes spiders no less, I’d have told them not to be so silly. Or more choice words to that effect. Yet there are times here when I even felt a bit sorry for them; their clear lack of understanding about what it is to be human, to be individual but still connected to others through love and friendship, was actually quite affecting. Which is a hell of an achievement. And just one example of the author taking you to an emotional place you weren’t expecting. Especially when their place at top of the baddie food chain is threatened by someone else. On which note I just have to say that if you’re the kind of character making a host of creepy-crawlies set on world domination seem like they might be hard done by, your life has gone seriously wrong somewhere. Anyway, no prizes for guessing who that might be.

There’s a perfect balancing of moments of intimacy and personal reflection with ridiculously thrilling, world-altering battles. I’m talking magic and swords and flying creatures and enough bugs to make you feel itchy all over. The levels of awesome are dialled right up, with my particular favourite, Noon, putting on a proper show. Everyone gets the opportunity to demonstrate the very essence of who they are, in high energy action scenes as much as the smaller ones full of feeling and quiet understanding. Yet at this late stage, there’s still space for characters to grow, for them to better understand themselves even as we come to see them more clearly. So much in this book felt like a revelation, an unfolding of truths that had been hidden just out of sight, but that mean everything to both the characters and the story. It only serves to ramp the tension even higher because if coming to terms with the past allows the possibility of change and a new, more positive future, then the ever present danger threatening to wipe it all out before it’s begun is all the more terrifying, for them and for us. Thankfully, the sense of doom and legitimate possibility of death doesn’t get everyone down. Instead, there’s a kind of ‘are you kidding me with this shit?’ attitude that’s genuinely funny. Though everyone has their own blend of humour, characters like Noon and Vintage have snark down pat, and their eye-rolling irritation is something that feels both modern and yet perfectly apt when you’re dealing with an alien insect invasion on top of every other thing going horribly bloody wrong. I’m sure we’d all act exactly the same way, except perhaps with more screaming. This banter forms part of the author’s clever merging of contemporary, familiar ideas and sentiments with her wildly imaginative and entertaining world. It’s an appealing mix, a place where diverse characters and relationships are so normalised they don’t even feel like a thing, but you can still be ripped to shreds by Wildtouched creatures when you step outside your door.

'This is a very dangerous plan,’ said […] as she passed. ‘I’m not sure you can even call it a plan. It’s more like barefaced cheek.’

‘My darling,’ Vintage shuffled to the edge, the drop beyond the ledge was dizzying, ‘I think that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.’ 

The characters really are everything, for me at least. Now that doesn’t mean the story isn’t well conceived or exciting or fun or all those other things which it clearly IS, just that I’d probably as happy reading a book of them doing normal stuff. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking, a reflection of the kind of life I wish for them now, after they’ve been through so much. After all they’ve put me through to boot. Perhaps we can have a follow up set years in the future when they’re living their mundane lives: shopping, going out for lunch, catching up with old friends at the yearly reunion, talking about the bad old days of the Ninth Rain over drinks. Seriously though, there are characters here that have an immediate impact and some that grow on you, but either way their hold on you is tight enough by the end that putting the book down is hard. (Though that might have had something to do with the death grip I had on my kindle from the stress of the ending…) Anyway… As you’d expect in the final instalment of a trilogy, the conflicts or issues between people, friends or couples or family, move towards some kind of understanding or resolution and it becomes clear that the lucky ones are being offered the potential for a happy ever after. Something you want so badly for them. But these are dark times and there are battles ahead. And you know, even if you don’t want to admit it to yourself, that maybe not everyone is going to make it through…. 

but I’m saying nothing.

An exceptional finale that exceeded every expectation and which epitomises the kind of inventive, diverse, and emotional fantasy writing the genre really needs. Everything about this series is so creative, so vibrant and refreshingly different that it almost needs to come with a caution. Beware reader, this is ground untrodden, an exhilarating yet hazardous journey. Your heart is in danger. You have been warned.

ARC via Netgalley
Emma Davis, 9.5/10

The Poison Song is the light at the end of the grimdark tunnel; its fantasy with heart.

Don't you just hate it when a story you love comes to an end? Whilst I am sad to take my leave from this trilogy, I am simultaneously overjoyed that it has staked its claim on my favourites shelf. In all honesty I was already planning where to put it after the second book, and it was not unexpected, as I loved the author’s Copper Cat trilogy too. She consistently writes fantasy of the highest echelon and I will shout it out at every chance I get so that more people will read her books.

So. If you have not yet started this series. This is me. Shouting at you. READ IT!

Just go ahead and buy the first book, The Ninth Rain. It won the British Fantasy Award for Best Fantasy Novel of 2018 for a very good reason. You can thank me later. 

For the rest of us who are already part of this magical journey… (meaning spoilers for books one and two to follow)

What a thrilling journey it has been!  This was always going to be a conclusion to remember, but as with her other series, the feature that makes The Winnowing Flame trilogy stand out is the characters and this was once again blatantly evident in The Poison Song. Tormalind, Noon, Bern, Aldasair, the war beasts, to mention but a few - Jen Williams has never faltered in the task of imbuing her characters with life, giving them all the tools necessary to worm their way (🐛 muhahahaha ) into our hearts, and the Winnowing Flame Trilogy is no exception. The growth they exhibit throughout is staggering. These are not flat characters stuck in a loop, but evolving, learning, loving, living beings who make the best of things through trial and error. The personal growth they exhibit is staggering and looking back at where they started and where they end up can set your head spinning. It is so easy to empathize with them all, but to highlight the skill at work here, I need to talk about the Jure’lia. This might be the final book of the trilogy, but I am still not over how great of an antagonist they are (are there any awards for best villain?) so I cannot help but discuss them for the umpteenth time. The complete alienness that Jen Williams has injected into these... things... It's not that they are vile or cruel or evil - after all, they are just true to their inherent nature. It’s that  they are just so make-the-hair-stand-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck OTHER than us! Couple that with the vivid, sensory details that Ms Williams writing invokes and you have an alien species that you do not want to be thinking of when you go to bed. Or if you are afraid of insects. Or spiders. *shudders. All in all, taken together with their insectile forms (and keeping in mind how many of us have some kind of fear linked to certain insects) I doubt that a creepier antagonist has ever been captured on paper. And herein lies the artistry. An insectile, alien organism/species wreaking unmentionable atrocities across all of Sarn, staking their claim on your nightmare hit-list, and yet Ms Williams will weave her wand and almost make you feel sorry for them and those they have corrupted. Even if only for a moment. Magic, I tell you. 

As if brilliant characters weren't enough though, the story is just as bloody good. When we last saw our heroes at the end of The Bitter Twins, they had been through a maelstrom of emotions. Terrible truths were uncovered and deeply devastating losses were inflicted upon them. The Poison Song picks up a short time after, with our heroes still reeling from the events of the traumatic battle and the Jure’lia having gone into hiding. There is no respite for our heroes though, no time to rest on these meager laurels, as plans for the annihilation of the Jure’lia need to be formulated and put into motion. And what a ride we are taken on! This time around there is a noticeable uptick in the pace, with action right off the bat. I had no chance to put this one down and the story raced away to that last stand. But you would be mistaken if you thought that the author was done building this wildly imaginative world and just going for that big ending. Instead Ms Williams layers it with even more history, mythos and mystery - giving us a world so rich, diverse and wonderfully storied that I sincerely hope she will grace us with tales that revisit it in the future. When that big ending does arrive though… No punches are pulled. Tense, horrific, vivid, hard hitting and packing lots of spine-chilling creepiness thanks to the variety of insectile horrors that the Jure’lia bring to the table…

‘Fuck my old boots,’ shouted Vintage. ‘What is that thing?’

... this battle is one to remember. 

My only complaint is a very slight one - the not so happily ever after one of the characters received. I had an idea it might happen as there was a palpable undercurrent running throughout the story, one that hinted at a possible bittersweet denouement, and when it did hit, it came with a bit of a surprise. I mean, I knew it was coming. I did try to prepare myself. And still, the rug was pulled out from under me. I had so hoped the ending would not go this way - what can I say? This was the only thing I did not like about the book, although most people will think that such a thing was necessary. Everything cannot go perfect they say - it’s part and parcel of the great ending. Me? I want my cake and I want to eat it too. 

So apart from me being fussy over happy endings, The Poison Song is a delightful last chapter in what is easily one of the best fantasy trilogies in recent times. I might be sounding like a broken record by now, but Jen Williams’ writing has won me over, time and time again. She writes with a distinctive, fresh voice, giving us exciting new tales teeming with love, hope, diversity, friendship, family -  things that are always worth fighting for in the face of adversity. Every time I think I cannot love it more, she surprises me. What more can I say? I’m all about fantasy. I adore it. I have read and enjoyed many types, but my favourite is the kind of fantasy that makes you feel really, really good. It gives you hope. It feeds your soul. It's the antithesis of grimdark. It’s The Winnowing Flame Trilogy. It’s what you should read next.

PS: My darling Vintage - easily one of my favourite characters ever: I hope to see more of you. This was an ending, but hopefully not THE ending.

‘Oh,’ she said, fighting against a wave of horror that threatened to stop her heart. ‘That particular monster can fuck right off.’
Eon Van Aswegen, 9.5/10

10/10 An exceptional finale that exceeded every expectation and which epitomises the kind of inventive, diverse, and emotional fantasy writing the genre really needs.

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