Book Review: The Ember Blade - Chris Wooding

The Ember Blade - Chris Wooding

Prepare to put a considerable amount of your time aside, because Chris Wooding's The Ember Blade is 770 pages long and it looks like it's only the beginning of an imaginative, thrilling, suspenseful and action-packed epic fantasy series. Many of the expected swords and demons conventions of the genre are in there and the path followed is a familiar one, but there's a slightly different twist on the nature of the warring kingdoms and on the kind of struggle that is going to take place between the forces of good and evil, with imagery and references that have a distinctly Nazi-like suggestion to them.

With over 700 pages to lay out the situation it inevitably takes a while for the nature of the conflict to make itself known, but the roots of it can already be seen within the friendship of Aren and Cade, a pair of 16 year old boys. Aren is highborn of Ossian blood, while Cade is the lowly son of a carpenter, but the boys are good friends and enjoying an adventure hunting she-wargs at the start of the book, dreaming of heroism and romantic adventures. Little do they realise that their training and experience will be preparing them for a very real and dangerous struggle, as soon after returning from their latest exploits their world is about to come crashing down.

Ossia has been living under the yoke of the Krodan Empire, who are continuing to pursue aggressive actions against neighbouring nations. Kroda are preparing to consolidate their hold over Ossia through a marriage between Prince Ottico of Kroda and Princess Sorrel of Harrow, which the Krodan's will celebrate in the presence of the Ember Blade, the sacred symbol of Ossian independence. Aren's father has just returned from his latest mysterious absence, warning his son of imminent dangers and in particular to beware of a figure he calls the Hollow Man. Too late however, the Krodan authorities attempt to arrest his father on a trumped up charge and Aren is sent to a work camp, along with Cade who tries to resist the arrest.

While the background of the conflict between the two kingdoms and the reason for the unrest is made known in the opening chapters, other forces are hinted at in the wandering of the druidess Vika-Walks-The-Barrow. She is dismayed at how the Nine Aspects of the old gods have been desecrated and their ways almost forgotten, but she has seen promising signs that point towards a new champion. There are a few hints and you think you might be able to guess who that champion might be, but the situation is complicated by Aren finding himself with no option but to join forces with some unexpected companions in an effort to resort the Ember Blade to its rightful position, one of whom is Garric, the Hollow Man his father warned him about.

For the larger part, The Ember Blade follows the familiar Lord of the Rings template. You could probably see close equivalents for Frodo in Aren the reluctant hero, for the faithful courageous common-man Sam in Cade, Vika is obviously very much the Gandalf figure and Garric is a kind of Aragorn, and you even get a Gollum-like figure in the Skarl Grub, but there are as many differences as similarities here. Grub in particular is actually a great character in his own right and brings a great deal of humour to the proceedings. A sense of humour is one valuable attribute that not only sets a different character to the work, but it also heightens the contrast of the horror and brutality that is to come at the hands of the Krodan Empire.

It's the depiction of the Krodans that is most interesting and quite daring for a fantasy novel and it's this that allows The Ember Blade to break quite successfully away from the familiar Lord of the Rings path. The authoritarian nature, the vanity and rivalry of its officers and their adherence to militaristic order, rank and procedure is likened very much to the behaviours of the Nazi forces in WWII. Conducting searches, checking papers, using informers and collaborators, capturing and interrogating members of the Ossian resistance, they rule with an iron fist, and even have an elite team called the Iron Hand, as well as other dark forces at their command. What is also troubling is how word is spreading of how Sards are being rounded up from ghettos and sent east on transports.

This places an entirely different perspective on the nature of dark fantasy, but it's not the only dark force at work in these troubled times. Chris Wooding keeps the tension high and action continually flowing the further Aren, Garric and his team set about their mission, travelling through the ghost city of Skavengard to elude dreadknights (yes, the equivalent of ringwraiths), battling ghosts, beasts and demons as well as dangerous human foes. But it's in the latter half of this thick book that The Ember Blade really finds its feet with a brilliant fast-paced and thrilling conclusion. Everything in place for this to turn out to be not just a good fantasy epic but something rather special and different. If it manages to keep up this kind of pace and tension, I'll happily clear the schedules for next few large volumes of the series.

The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding is published by Gollancz on 20 September 2018

Amazon UK - The Ember Blade (The Darkwater Legacy)

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