It should never have worked. A kitchen boy with secret powers, a noblewoman fleeing a forced betrothal, a fallen knight seeking redemption, a sorceror plotting to expand his power, a dying king... The synopsis for J V Jones's first novel, the trilogy-opener (of course) The Baker's Boy (1995) could hardly have sounded more conventional: epic fantasy in all its most formulaic elements. When I eventually tried it—it came highly recommended—my scepticism was overturned quickly. "The Book Of Words," as the series was called, was sprawling and a little rough around the edges, and the titular Jack was not nearly as interesting a character as some of his counterparts, but here was a character-driven story set in a world where the physical environment was never merely set-dressing, but fully evoked (and felt); where suffering was not an occasional plot pitfall to be recovered from overnight, but a continual threat and disfiguring fact of life (the second book, A Man Betrayed, was particularly, unusually brutal for series fantasy; this was—just—before "A Song of Ice and Fire"); where characters related to each other on a level beyond smart quips or platitudes; where selfishness or circumstances sometimes caused good people to do each other serious harm; and where consequences were, very often, written on the skin. To a reader who had grown up with Eddings and Feist it came as a (very welcome) shock. Jones followed this up with an excellent standalone, The Barbed Coil (1997), and then began a second series, "Sword of Shadows," set in the same world as "The Book of Words."
A Sword from Red Ice, the third instalment in this series, marks Jones's emergence from a bout of Fantasy Writers' Block. (Stemming, apparently, from that old epic problem of having more storylines than could comfortably fit into a single novel.) Five years have elapsed between the publication of volumes two and three, and now we learn that this is not a trilogy—as it was originally marketed—but a projected sequence of five novels. This makes Red Ice not an inevitable damp squib, precisely, but certainly a book with hurdles to overcome, some of which are extrinsic to the words on the page. That it fails at certain points is hardly surprising, but even if it is more uneven than its predecessors—and in terms of pacing a clear victim of middle volume syndrome—there is plenty here to enjoy.
As with most fantasy series, it is not ideal to begin in the middle, although, helpfully, the characters reflect on past events frequently and non-cryptically enough to convey all the significant information, and there's a useful seven-page synopsis of the story so far for anyone new to the series, or for anyone who has been waiting five years and forgotten much in the interim. The tale is set in a northern land of river valleys and mountain ranges shading into tundra and glacial expanses, with a bonus magical wasteland in between, the Great Want. This landscape plays host to a diverse range of communities, principally borderland cities, trading towns, and nobles' estates in the valley, together with the pastoralist, largely sedentary clans, the ragtag settlement of the Maimed Men, and the mysterious, nomadic (non-human) Sull to the North. There are many plot threads, particular focus being given to the clanholds—inter-clan raiding, intra-clan politicking, and day-to-day communal life—and to certain characters' journeys through the Want and elsewhere, on magical, potentially world-saving missions. One subplot concerns a scramble for power in the city of Spire Vanis, and another a sorceror's recovery from torture within the city's walls, but the overwhelming notes are those of the great, unforgiving, bitterly cold outdoors.
One of Jones's greatest strengths is her ability to evoke these landscapes viscerally—there are many wonderful descriptive passages, but the narrative's use of viewpoints brings them to life with every blast of icy wind. We experience each squelch and stench, each jarring misstep of a mount or slow, soggy, painful failure of a pair of boots; we are drawn in to share the characters' precarious dependence on their campfires and blankets or their frigid stone dwellings. Since most of her characters are intimately familiar with the demands of these landscapes, and thus less discomforted by them than us, Jones uses the overawing Want to disorientate both readers and characters:
As a clansman trained to navigate dense forests, follow the whisper-light trails left by ice-hares and foxes, and hold his bearings on frozen tundra in a whiteout, Raif found traveling through the Want frustrating. The sun might rise in the morning, but then again it might not. Entire mountain ranges could sail on the horizon like ships. Clouds formed rings that hung in the sky, unaffected by prevailing winds, for days. At night the great wheel of the stars would turn in the heavens, but you could never be sure what constellations it would contain. Sometimes the wheel reversed itself. [...] As soon as you had established the direction of due north, decided on a course to lead you out, the Want began to slip through your fingers like snowmelt. Nothing was fixed here. Everything—the sky, the land, the sun and the moon—drifted to the movement of some unknowable tide. (pp. 15-6)
These landscapes are overpoweringly vast not only in terms of topography, but also time. The long view of the history of Jones's world—in the sense not of names and dates but of the broader-scale movement of peoples, and how it affects the present—is important, and omnipresent. The past is written in the land, as clan chief Vaylo Bludd reflects:
The entire Northern Territories were stuffed with ghosts. You couldn't build a doghouse or an outhouse without feeling the hard chunk of cut stone hitting your shovel the minute you began to dig out the ground. The Sull had been there first. They built atop every mountain, hill and headland, upon every lakeshore, riverbank and creek bed, and in every mossy hollow, barren canyon and dank cave. (p. 49)
(Jones also has an ear for names—Heritas Cant, Penthero Iss, Marafice Eye, Inigar Stoop—although perhaps giving clan-deserter, oath-breaker and heart-killer Raif the surname Sevrance was a Dickensian step too far.)
For all the magnitude of what faces many of the characters—foundling Ash March is a "Reach," who can open a portal to another dimension (bad) and has just survived an epic blood transfusion to make her into one of the Sull (ambiguous), clansman Raif's developing powers include a close personal relationship with Death, while his sister Effie is being sold down the river (literally) for her apparent sixth sense—the bulk of their thoughts and energy goes into the daily necessity of survival in this harshness, rather than navel-gazing. Magical action, when it happens, is a sharp punctuation rather than a regular occurrence.
Likewise, much attention is given to the characters' more mundane (but equally, and more immediately, dangerous) interactions with the people and social groupings around them. The most interesting plot threads in Red Ice, in fact, concern primarily non-magical individuals. The first is Raina Blackhail, widow of one clan chief (Dagro) and reluctant wife of another (the unscrupulous usurper Mace, under whose neglectful rule Blackhail—Raif's former clan—is a shadow of its former self); the second is Bram Cormac, introduced in an earlier volume but coming to the fore in Red Ice for the first time. Raina's story—which centres on her efforts to rally her beleaguered people, and perhaps seize authority from her hated husband—is that of a once-pampered young woman finding strength in her response to personal injury, and communal belonging in her desire to put right the injustices afflicting her clan-by-marriage. Bram's tale, meanwhile, provides unexpected warmth and tenderness, particularly when set against the notes of cold climate, weary endurance and brutal violence of most of the other storylines. Bram has been sent away from home by his adored older half-brother, ambitious clan chief Robbie Dun Dhoone, to be fostered with the Castlemilk clan. Ostensibly this is to last a year, but—as Bram gradually admits to himself—it is most likely for good; Bram has always been a poor fit for Robbie's idea of a Dhoone warrior, and derided for his parentage. Although Bram thus has bitter truths to accept about his life, this is ultimately outweighed by his discovery of the unaccustomed joys of spreading his wings, making his own decisions, and living in an environment where he is fully appreciated on his own terms, rather than existing in the shadow of his brother. The narration in his viewpoint chapters is likewise light and appealing, composed of short, chatty sentences (that just occasionally dip into the jarringly contemporary):
In the end Bram had decided to continue wearing the cloak [of Dhoone]. His reasons were complicated and not all of them were noble. Soon enough he would wear the cream wool of Castlemilk.
He tried not to think of it, and mostly that worked as a strategy. Castlemilk later. Travel in the now. (p. 237)
Each of these stories is about identity, and indeed it's one of the most important themes of the book. Characters tend to formulate their identity primarily in terms of their membership of social groups, usually several that intersect or overlap (and occasionally, damagingly, conflict), manifesting in a variety of overt and implicit ways. Such memberships can be inaugurated or reinforced through collective, public ritual, as we see when Bram—in his proudest moment—affirms his new life at Castlemilk by taking the clan oath. Other rituals are private or the preserve of the initiated alone, like the Sull greetings and bloodlettings that Ash is repeatedly bewildered by, the subtleties of which encode patterns of hierarchy and deference. Memberships can be signalled by where one lives—it is significant for Raina's plot thread that clan widows, for example, have their own private hearth in the clanhold, and form an influential semi-autonomous grouping within the clan—or what one wears.
There are also physical tokens of belonging. At an early age, every clanmember goes through a ritual with the shaman-esque clan guide to get a totemic animal. More private than a name, the totem is an extra layer of identity, considered to express inner personality. It is kept symbolically in the form of the "lore," a small token of the association—a tooth, a piece of bone or antler, say—worn concealed around the neck. Raif's sister Effie has an inanimate lore, a stone, which has always marked her out as different; here, like Bram, is a younger character whose viewpoint chapters are conversational in tone, and often entertainingly sardonic to boot: "At least when a stone sank it sank fast" (p. 174), she reflects, thinking ruefully of her youthful desires for a fawn lore, dismissed now as "wolf bait".
For the clans collectively, group identity is expressed through the guidestone, a talismanic rock tended by the guide that symbolises the heart of a clan and the presence of the Stone Gods. When a warrior dies in battle, a chunk is carved from the rock to represent his heart. Clansmen tend to carry some fragment of the stone with them—a pouch of powder in the case of Blackhail, a vial of stone in solution for Castlemilk—as a reminder of their links to the clan. When these symbols are threatened, the effects are devastating. In the prologue, Blackhail's guidestone explodes as a result of water finding its way into hidden cracks—itself symbolic of the decay at the heart of the clan, of course—and then freezing. Quite apart from the physical damage this does, destroying buildings and killing or injuring those sleeping nearby, the psychological toll is immense on both Raina and her clan:
As she looked on, the wind picked up, sending snow skirling and blowing plumes of dark grey powder from the rubble. Once men had treasured that powder; carried it into battle, borne it across continents, slipped it beneath their tongues as they spoke oaths, rubbed it on the bellies of their newborns, and sprinkled it over the closed eyes of their dead. It had been used as sparingly as gold. Now it was blowing in the wind. (p. 29)
Much of the novel is about changes in characters' relationships to these social groupings, sometimes in affirmation and sometimes in challenge. Raina finds meaning and purpose in her growing attachment to Blackhail, while Raif—who, during the previous books, has comprehensively broken his oaths to clan and family—finds new belonging and kinship elsewhere, as a member and putative leader of the Maimed Men, although he feels the loss of his earlier self keenly. Ash finds her (and our) image of the Sull altered by contact with different, less welcoming, individuals, even as she attempts to understand what it means for her to have become Sull; lacking her previous mentors after the climax of the second book, she finds herself adrift, and continually making mistakes that might prove fatal, without the necessary knowledge of Sull customs. This motif of reassessment turns up elsewhere, with characters repeatedly needing to adjust their assumptions and expectations—something refreshing in series fantasy, which so often seems to revolve around people whose opinions and affections are mostly fixed: Bram's slow but liberating realisation of Robbie's lack of regard for him, Effie's growing affection for the fellow-prisoner she had previously dismissed, or the beautifully-drawn course of the relationship between Raif and exiled clansman and Maimed Man Addie, from wariness to trust and thence, unavoidably, to renewed distance.
Red Ice being the middle book, there is inevitably a drag factor at work, for all that there are significant developments by the end for most plot threads. This is not to deny that a number of the stories are entertaining even without much sense of forward motion; Bram's and Vaylo's chapters are tangential to the overarching plot, but they are enjoyable and intensely character-focused. But others carry a frustrating feel of marking time. Raina's strand goes one step forward, two back, with the introduction of replacement guide Stannig Beade to the Blackhail mix, whose role—thwarting, undermining, and ultimately physically abusing Raina—is essentially a more extreme version of that of her (absent) husband Mace in previous books. The new threat perhaps gives Raina's ambition a greater urgency, but her plight retreads old ground, and at times Stannig seems to exist simply to delay her attempt to take control. Effie's storyline likewise involves a lot of waiting for nothing much to happen—all her scenes take place during her involuntary journey downriver to Clan Grey—and while the surroundings are wonderfully evoked and Effie is a fun character to spend time with, there is nothing in it that could not have been achieved more concisely. Raif and Ash, being the main characters, have to shoulder the burden of the broader plot; as a result, both are fine but rather flatter and less interesting than the other viewpoint characters. Unfortunately, also, Raif gets the lion's share of the action—even if at least some of it is essentially backtracking—while Ash is relegated to wandering through the snow, and meeting and sleeping with a pretty, enigmatic, and obviously untrustworthy Sull chap named Lan. (Sexual encounters are often problematic and dangerous for female characters in Jones's books, reflecting women's status in the world.) And, as is ever the way with multiple-viewpoint fantasy sagas, the reader must wait—sometimes for over a hundred pages—between instalments of each plot strand.
More trivial but still niggling issues arise from the prose. The number of typos was a little higher than might be hoped, although not seriously so; more puzzling, however, is the fact that American spellings have been retained in this UK edition. A couple of careless mis-usages also threw me: at one stage, for example, "grizzly" is substituted for (I assumed) "gristly." More pervasive is the way nearly all the characters display an implausibly high level of anatomical knowledge, a miscalculation that damages the viewpoint-character-focused narration. There are mentions of corneas and spinal cords; Raina can "feel the oily smoke from [the Scarpes'] pine-resin cook stoves passing through the membranes in her lungs" (p. 36), while Raif notes "his sweat glands open and excreting oil" (p. 161), and assesses an injury as follows:
He'd heard somewhere that if you could wiggle your foot it wasn't broken. Concentrating hard, he forced messages along his nerves. [...] To test the foot, he applied more pressure. At about seventy pounds the ankle gave, bucking like a horse refusing a jump. (p. 213)
The principle is fine but the execution off; it is likely that a clansman would have a rough and ready idea of dealing with injuries in the field, but how would he be able to judge "seventy pounds" of pressure? I will pass over the observation that "The smoke from the house smelled oily and slightly poisonous—not good for children or asthmatics" (333) in amused (almost-) silence.
These are, as I have said, niggles, but they disturb the close engagement with the story world that is the hallmark, or rather the necessity, of epic fantasy. This would be easier to ignore in a leaner work, but here exacerbates the other problems caused by the dawdling pace. There is a great depth and richness—albeit of a decidedly bleak kind—to be found in Jones's work, in particular an integral sense of place that few writers in the field can match. Yet, as for so many epic fantasies, the temptation to always go bigger is both its triumph and its tripwire.
Nic Clarke lives in Oxford, U.K., where she is using her PhD funding to assemble the world's largest pile of books-to-be-read. She has previously written for SFX and Emerald City, and spends too much time wittering on at Eve's Alexandria.