Book cover: The Ninth Rain - Jen Williams (a blue-grey eagle against a silver background)Eight times, the Jur’elia have laid waste to Sarn. Eight times, the Eborans have fought them off with the aid of their holy tree Ygseril. But Ygseril is dead, and the Eborans are nearly extinct. If the Jur’elia come again, who will stand against them?

I tried to read The Ninth Rain ahead of its release earlier this year, but found myself not in the mood for fantasy. After an autumn steeped in scifi, it was exactly what I needed – not a palate cleanser, but a rich, tasty stew.

This is one of those fabulous stories that sets the tone right up front then distracts you with all the world-building and adventure until you’ve forgotten exactly what Jen Williams is prepared to do to you. Those who are uncomfortable with the deaths of children and animals may wish to steer clear; but in spite of moments of blood and Cthulhu-esque horror (and oh my, it’s squicky), this is not a grimdark tale.

With the Eborans hovering on the edge of a self-inflicted extinction (turns out drinking blood has down sides for the drinker as well as the other guy), the once-immortal race are split between despair and denial. Tormalin the Oathless has fled his homeland to lose himself in drink and sex; his cousin Aldasair has sunk into madness; his brilliant sister Hestillion splits her time between caring for the dying and frantic attempts to waken Ygseril.

Humanity, meanwhile, cheerfully despises them for that awkward point in history where the Eborans swept through the mountains and tried to eat everyone in sight. There’s not a lot of love lost, but I appreciated how the narrative inverted the traditional male gaze to constantly remind us just how attractive Tormalin is (and how much of a dandy) to human eyes in spite of his appetites. He’s just a big flouncy Legolas with a sword and sharp teeth.

While we spend most of the book in human-dominated Sarn, the overwhelming sense is of scattered settlements with little direction. There’s no kingdom or overarching government, just frantic smallholdings and well-walled towns trying to keep out the ever-mutating Wild. It’s all too clear that if the Jur’elia return, Sarn can mount no defence. The big question for me was whether the Jur’elia would return or whether they were an enormous red herring. In the meantime, there is adventure to be had.

Enter Vincenza ‘Vintage’ de Grazon, rocketing onto my list of all-time favourite characters: a middle-aged woman of colour, she’s an eccentric noblewoman who should (according to her brother) be at home in her vineyards, but who chooses to study the deadly wrecks of Jur’elia Behemoth to better understand the Wild that threatens her people. She’s smart, courageous, impetuous, and practical. But mostly she’s warm hearted and curious, her intellectual drive reminding me of a more worldly (and more dangerous) Isabella Trent.

Vintage employs Tormalin as her bodyguard, although its unclear whether this is one of her whims or a deliberate gambit based on her studies. After all, she really wants to know what secrets are hidden in those Jur’elia Behemoths; and a semi-immortal bodyguard who is spectacularly good with his big sword (the edged kind, tut, she’s not that sort of lady) can’t be a bad idea when it comes to keeping parasite spirits at bay.

Nor can a runaway fell-witch, no matter how keen the repressive Winnowry may be to get her back. When she and Tor encounter Noon in the Wild, Vintage is quick to court the defensive young woman, even while the witch and the Eboran spit insults at one another. It’s not (just) that Vintage collects strays – it’s that she recognises opportunities. And it turns out the three make quite a team, with plenty of entertaining banter as their relationships are established.

While they have their flaws (and they have plenty to go round, not least a self-assured arrogance that irresistibly suggests that things will go horribly wrong when least expected), the unlikely trio make for great entertainment as they bicker their way across the nightmarish landscape of Sarn in search of answers. Meanwhile, back in Ebora, Hestillion’s efforts to bring back Ygseril raise ever bigger questions. Just how far is Tor’s sister willing to go to?

The Ninth Rain plays with familiar tropes and turns them into something that feels new. Williams expertly builds tension and raises the stakes as she slowly reveals just how dangerous the Jur’elia were / would be, whilst presenting a fascinating world of fire witches, religious cults and the mysterious Wild. I enjoyed the twists and turns – this is one of those tales where even if you can call it, the journey is so much fun it just doesn’t matter.

****1/2

I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The sequel, The Bitter Twins, is due for release on March 8th 2018.