Book cover: The Bitter Twins - Jen Williams (a dragon winding about the book title)War has begun. While Noon and Vostok struggle to forge their friends into a coherent fighting unit, Vintage unearths clues that will lead them away from the conflict in search of Ysgeril’s birthplace. But the enemy is moving against them in ways they’ve never seen before. Everybody needs allies, but who can trusted?

This is one of those sequels that’s impossible to talk about without at least a few spoilers for the first book, so if you haven’t read The Ninth Rain I strongly recommend you stop now and go do that instead (because it’s really good, and it’s worth avoiding spoilers).

The Bitter Twins picks up right where The Ninth Rain left off – with a horrified Hestillion in the heart of the corpse moon, wondering what she’s done. Hestillion is divisive, but I adore her, not least for being so committed to doing the wrong thing after giving it full consideration.

I loved her single-minded commitment to awakening Ysgeril in The Ninth Rain; when the penny dropped that Ebora’s greatest living dreamwalker was more than capable of filling the dreams of humans across Sarn with visions of horror and despair, I actually cheered. It was such an ambitious gambit, and – given how we met her – I was honestly unsure whether she was summoning humans to Ebora on the off chance of finding help, or because she was planning the biggest blood-letting since the Carrion Wars.

Yet in spite of all that, Hestillion still surprised me in The Bitter Twins. Her journey is fascinating: from despair on the floor of the corpse moon, hugging her warbeast pod to her chest as she watches Ebora vanish beneath the clouds; through to a stubborn denial as she focuses on survival; and beyond to an almost nihilistic rejection of her roots. I joked that I think the world needs a What Would Vintage Do t-shirt, but as moral compasses go, What Would Hestillion Do is even more reliable: you always want to do the opposite.

Tor’s sister is so rich in treachery that I’m never sure who she’s about to double-cross. It could be off-putting, but I find her story too compelling – helped by the insight it gives us into the alien hive mind of the Jure’lia (when the Queen MAJOR SPOILER (mouse over to read) addresses her as ‘human’ right up front, my eyebrows nearly flew into my hairline – it’s always fun going back through reading notes to spot reactions like this – but it’s a very neat foreshadowing).

Back on home turf, Tor, Noon, Aldasair and Bern have bonded with their own warbeasts and thrown themselves into Sarn’s defence. The Ninth Rain is like no other – the world has just eight defenders, but the emerging Jure’lia are unusually weak and scattered. From the opening battle, it still looks like they have the advantage – it’s hard to fight off an enemy who can possess bystanders and turn them into (basically) zombie hordes before drowning everyone in resin.

Worse, only Vostok has any memory of who and what she is. Noon inadvertently preserved her soul; the other warbeasts lack the instincts and discipline they need to work together. However, there’s a mirroring of warbeast and companion, which is frankly adorable. Vostok is short-tempered and impatient; Kirune is self-absorbed (and heartbreaking in his desire to connect with his past); Jessen is diffident but caring; the enormous Sharrik is fiercely protective and helpful, if rather overconfident. But the beasts bond less easily with each other than with their riders.

To my mild disappointment, there was no warbeast for Vintage (although her conversations with Vostok are priceless), but it puts her in a new position: the scholar turns leader and administrator, becoming the ‘sensible’ one (HA) who can be left in charge to run Ebora while the others go on various missions. This is the same Vintage who can move faster than Tor can see when there’s a sniff of an ancient document (her passion for history is delightful; I adore this bespectacled middle-aged woman SO MUCH), and who has two left feet at the wrong time.

This is also a Vintage being confronted by her age and emotions: her lover has been restored to her, but their relationship may not stand the test. There are so many difficulties bundled up in her interactions with Nanthema – near-immortal to begin with, and for whom 20 years of captivity seemed a literal heartbeat, only to discover her people are dead and her human lover has aged. I was quite wrung out by my feelings, whilst admiring the complexity of the situation. Just because the world is ending doesn’t mean your heart can’t break while it’s at it.

Complications are the name of the game in the middle book of any trilogy, and like many middle books I think the pacing of The Bitter Twins does suffer slightly in introducing and resolving them. There’s a slow build in each of the parallel situations (Tor and Noon’s journey in particular feels protracted, although the genre-bending pay-off is considerable – as is the hint of where Noon’s power comes from); and it’s far too obvious where Vintage’s difficulties in Ebora are going to arise (never trust a man who doesn’t drink his tea, however fabulous his companion’s name may be. Seriously: Tyranny Munk. Can I get a HELL YES?)

…that said, sometimes being able to see how things will fall out is part of the fun. I read much of The Bitter Twins with my fist in my mouth as the tensions mounted. It was obvious the hammer would fall; the question was when and how hard. Yet the answer surprised me – both Hestillion’s choices and the Queen’s response were entirely unexpected – and once again I reached the end of the book dying to know what happens next.

The Bitter Twins is darker than The Ninth Rain whilst continuing to steer clear of grimdark, and I love it all the better for it. This is a series that exposes weaknesses of character and terrible decisions, but mirrors them with commitment and love (and whip sharp banter). Vintage insists on pursuing the greater good regardless of personal cost; there’s an unexpected shyness that defines Bern’s gentle courting of Aldasair (as an aside: Bern’s mum rides a bear. Bern’s people are the most epic and deserve spin-off series in their own right); and Noon’s fierce determination to make the world a better place (and burn down anyone who gets in her way) is a bright flame against the darker urges of the antagonists.

It’s been a while since I last picked up an epic fantasy series, and Jen Williams is setting a phenomenally high bar for any that I tackle next – not least for proving that fantasy can be gritty without succumbing to bleak inhumanity. More please.

****1/2

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

The Bitter Twins is out now!