As you may have noted, I am fond of the occasional fantasy classic but, like many a fantasy author, I am also a fan of the genre as it is today and that continues to shape my own approach to my work. The idea in this feature is to focus on some of these contemporary writers as much to highlight their work to a receptive audience as it is to show the kinds of writers inspiring me today. This inaugural session focuses in on Jen Williams and, specifically, her series The Winnowing Flame.
Jen broke onto the scene in 2014 with a fairly unusual route to market. As with a lot of us, Jen had been writing for a number of years and had plenty of material in the drawer when she decided to put out a novella that went onto become the opening of her first series (The Copper Promise Series). It got attention (because it is excellent) and the series was picked up. Since then, Jen has written The Winnowing Flame series, broken into writing thrillers (Dog Rose Dirt / A Dark and Secret Place) and has a new fantasy duology due out later this year (Talonsister). Jen’s a fantastic writer and good people.
The Winnowing Flame series is a particular favourite of mine because it is such a lovely example of what for a time we were calling slipstream . That is a fantasy that blurs the edges between science fiction and fantasy. In the world of Sarn, the Eborans have fought the Jure’lia blessed by the “rains” of the great tree Ygseril from the boughs of which were birthed great war beasts. After the eighth “rain” the Jure’lia vanished and the sap of Ygseril stopped prolonging the lives of the Eborans. The land is at peace but the Eborans have been decimated by disease, the scars of the war lie all about, and in this wreckage parasite spirits lurk, waiting to attack.
After witnessing a parasite spirit attack in the wild, Lady Vincenza “Vintage” de Grazon, embarks on a journey to study and understand the spirits. She is joined by Tormalin The Oathless (an Eboran in disgrace) and a renegade fell witch called Noon. In Ebora, Tormalin’s sister Hestillion is working to unlock the presence she feels in the boughs of the seemingly dead Ygseril and has no limits to the lengths she will go to.
For me, The Winnowing Flame is a masterclass in world-building through story (as opposed to information dumping). Vintage; Tormalin and Noon are all well-drawn characters that resolutely refuse to follow any kind of predictable beats; leaving you cursing them for some of their choices – a sure sign of good characterisation. There are familiar fantasy tropes but just ever so slightly turned to one side. Sometimes those changes are slight, like sipping a glass of wine with a cheeky kick and, other times, more akin to being introduced to a new spirit – bold and fiery. I reread them every so often to remind me of just what excellent fantasy looks like these days.
The series comprises three volumes – The Ninth Rain – The Bitter Twins – The Poison Song. They weren’t easily available in the US originally but were released out there last year. Go read.