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[Book review]: J.V. Jones

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The Book of Words 1: The Baker's Boy by J.V. Jones

Conspiracies and treachery run deep at Castle Harvell. King Lesketh is dying of an illness, the Four Kingdoms are at war with the neighbouring land of Halcus and Chancellor Baralis is intriguing with the Knights of Valdis and the Duke of Bren. The other major powers of the continent, sensing a coming clash of nations, are arming for war. But such things are flying high over the head of Jack, a simple baker's apprentice who just wants to get on with his life. When Jack manifests powers that mark him as a sorcerer, he earns the enmity of Baralis. Fleeing into the wilderness along with Lady Melliandra, who is trying to escape a marriage to the sinister Prince Kylock, Jack has to come to grips with his powers and discover his role in the unfolding events.

The Baker's Boy, originally published in 1995, is the debut novel by British fantasy author J.V. Jones and the opening volume of the Book of Words trilogy (itself the opening three volumes of a longer fantasy epic continued in her current Sword of Shadows sequence). As a glance at the plot summary will reveal, we are deep in the heart of Traditional Fantasy Territory here. There's a young boy destined for great things. There's evil sorcerers conniving to bring about dark ends. There's cruel and unworthy heirs to thrones, and beautiful ladies trying to escape from pre-arranged fates. It's all very traditional.

Traditional does not necessarily mean bad, and Jones laces her story with some darker and more interesting elements. The book is fairly 'low fantasy' in nature, dwelling on conspiracies, murders and assassinations. Characters such as Baralis are ruthless and merciless, but do not see themselves that way and are presented as the hero of their own story. Blurring the moral boundaries nicely, Jones sets up the greatest threats to Baralis as coming from Tavalisk, Archbishop of the distant city of Rorn, who himself is a venal, vain, arrogant and cruel man, little better than Baralis; and Maybor, Baralis's rival at court and the father of Melliandra, who is also presented as a violent and unpleasant man. The fact that these three characters are as bad as one another makes it hard to root for any side, although Jones gives a more sympathetic portrait of the three characters caught up in the three connivers' webs: Jack, Melliandra and Tawl, a knight who is searching for a young boy whose coming is foretold in prophecy (yes, one of those). There is also a tremendously satisfying vein of black humour running through the book, such as Tavalisk's wry observations of events being accompanied by a battle of wits with his much put-upon manservant.

Whilst Jones mixes the traditional fantasy ingredients up a little, and the book is always readable, regular genre readers will find little here that has not been done before, and better. As a first novel, The Baker's Boy is certainly very rough in places. Where the book gains some additional value is that Jones later went on to write The Sword of Shadows, a fantasy epic that is categorically superior to almost everything else in the genre (certainly it's batting at the same level as A Song of Ice and Fire, the Malazan series and the works of Guy Gavriel Kay). Whilst The Book of Words is nowhere near as good, though there is an escalation in quality from book to book that is impressive to watch, it's certainly worth a look as some characters that re-occur in the later Sword of Shadows do first appear here, and knowing their backstory has some worth for the later books.

The Baker's Boy (***) is as traditional a start to a fantasy series as there has ever been, though it remains resolutely entertaining. There are some rough spots as Jones comes up to speed but there's a rich vein of dark humour, some solid characterisation and an ending that was rather startling and refreshingly bleak in those altogether more cliched times when the book first came out. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

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The Book of Words 2: A Man Betrayed by J.V. Jones

Jack and Melliandra continue their flight through the lands of Halcus, seeking refuge in the distant city of Bren. Meanwhile, the mad Prince Kylock has seized his father's throne and embarked on a bloody invasion of Halcus, committing atrocity after atrocity. In Bren, Chancellor Baralis and Lord Maybor have arrived to arrange the marriage between Kylock and the Duke's daughter, to the Duke's disquiet, as well as continuing their own bitter feud. And in the fighting pits of the city, a disgraced knight struggles to find his redemption.

 

A Man Betrayed is the middle volume of the Book of Words trilogy and is a prime example of a novel that falls foul of 'middle book syndrome'. The book has no real opening and no real end (though there's a hell of a cliffhanger) and the plot is a mixture of dynamic forward movement in some storylines and some slightly tedious wheel-spinning in others.

 

In one of the more successful storylines, Melliandra is kidnapped (again), but this time around is able to turn her circumstances to her favour. She goes from victim to political player over the course of the novel in a transition that is convincingly-handled by the author. On the other hand, Jack's storyline becomes seriously bogged down. Jones clearly had to find something to do to prevent him from travelling straight to Bren and getting involved in events there, and somewhat unconvincingly lands him with a screwed-up family unit living in the backwoods and getting involved in a murder plot. There's some attempts to turn it into important character-building material for Jack but, aside from the titular betrayal at the subplot's climax, it fails to resonate.

 

More successful is Tawl's storyline, which is a more traditional arc of seeking redemption following the heinous crime he commits (though unwillingly) at the end of the first volume. Though there is little surprising in this storyline, it's handled well by the author, particularly in the use of the previously tedious 'lovable rogue' Nabber to help Tawl along his path. Elsewhere, Baralis is as fiendishly (if occasionally cartoonishly) evil and Machivellian as ever, Maybor becomes a more interesting character and Tavalisk's observations-from-afar of the main plot remain amusing. Bodger and Grift (the trilogy's answer to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) also get a bit more involved in the plot as well as providing the book's more comical moments.

 

Overall, A Man Betrayed (***½) is not without its shortcomings but is a stronger book than The Baker's Boy. Jones's writing has improved, and she juggles the multiple character arcs with confidence. Aside from Jack's repetitive storyline, this is an entertaining fantasy novel, though one that does not stray far from familiar ground. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

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The Book of Words 3: Master and Fool by J.V. Jones

Melliandra, Maybor and Tawl are in hiding in the city of Bren as the mad King Kylock expands his power across the north. As armies march and cities burn, Jack discovers how to control his power and learns that his road leads to the forbidding island of Larn.

 

Master and Fool is the final volume of J.V. Jones's Book of Words trilogy. As is traditional with these sort of things, epic climaxes are reached, daring deeds are undertaken and destinies are fulfilled. However, Jones undertakes these actions with unusual cynicism, showing there is a cost to victory and no triumph is unmarred by tragedy.

 

Jones's writing skills have improved from book to book in this series, with the somewhat jarring tonal shifts of the first volume (from tragedy to black comedy and back again) now smoothed other by more natural transitions. Unlike the second volume, which was prone to time-filling wheel-spinning, this third book is fairly jam-packed with plot development. In fact, it's rather too full and a long and epic journey that fills the middle part of the book whilst events are on hold back in Bren feels a bit implausible. It may have been better for Jones to have restructured this series and allowed this journey to begin in the second volume (sacrificing the more tedious and disposable Jack scenes at the farm if necessary). As it stands, whilst Jack and Tawl are off having an epic adventure we have to endure quite a few unpleasant scenes of Melliandra being tormented in prison, which get redundant quite quickly.

 

In fact, given Melliandra's character growth in the second volume, it's disappointing to see her relegated to the standard damsel in distress role here, whilst Jack and Tawl get to do the whole traditional hero's journey, male-bonding thing. In fact, given that the trilogy moves away from the standard epic fantasy template several times in its earlier volumes, it's rather disheartening that the author returns so quickly to the genre's standard tropes in the final volume. Even one of the more interesting devices, of using castle guards Bodger and Grift to offer commentary on what's going on around them, is marred by having the two guards join forces with our heroes and become more central characters, which feels like an indulgence. More satisfying by far is Tavalisk's lazy villainy and attempts to manipulate events from afar, which backfire on him most amusingly.

 

Whilst the ending is problematic - and one character arc is left rather blatantly unresolved for the sort-of sequel series Sword of Shadows to address - there are still positives to take from it. Jones's actual writing and characterisation are reasonable and things are wrapped up satisfyingly without being too neat. The trilogy as a whole is definitely one of the better examples of mid-1990s epic fantasy, even moreso for being an example of the darker direction the genre was headed in regardless of A Game of Thrones (the first two volumes of Book of Words came out before it).

 

Master and Fool (***½) is a solid - if flawed - conclusion to Jones's opening trilogy, but is only a hint of how much better she gets later on. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

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The Sword of Shadows 1: A Cavern of Black Ice by J.V. Jones

The chief of Clan Blackhail has been killed, allegedly by raiders from the rival Clan Bludd. The new chief, Mace Blackhail, calls for war, but one of the witnesses to the attack, Raif Sevrance, knows that the Bludds were not behind it. When Blackhail's reprisal attack results in the unintended massacre of innocent women and children, Raif abandons his clan and family and flees in the company of his uncle, the city-born Angus Lok.

 

 

Meanwhile, far to the south in the city of Spire Vanis, Asarhia March is a virtual prisoner in the fortress of her foster-father, the city's surlord. When a chance to escape arises, Ash takes it without hesitation. But her adopted father has spent sixteen years preparing for the sorcery within Ash to awaken, and he will not surrender it without a fight.

 

A Cavern of Black Ice, originally published in 1999, is the opening novel in J.V. Jones's Sword of Shadows sequence. This series comprises five novels, four of them now available. Prior to this series Jones wrote a well-received trilogy, The Book of Words, and a successful stand-alone novel, The Barbed Coil.

 

The Sword of Shadows takes place in the same world as Book of Words, with A Cavern of Black Ice commencing about sixteen years after the events of Master and Fool. The two series share two characters in common, but otherwise there are no major links between them, and Sword of Shadows can be enjoyed by itself. This is helpful because Book of Words, though entertaining, was certainly not brilliant. The work of a new author, it was a mixture of clumsy writing mixed in with variable characterisation and a dark sense of cynical humour, its main distinguishing feature. Solid, but unspectacular.

 

Sword of Shadows is a very different series. A Cavern of Black Ice is subtle where the former trilogy was overt, restrained where the older work was indulgent. A Cavern of Black Ice is, basically, as good an opening volume to an epic fantasy as has ever been written, better than Gardens of the Moon, The Eye of the World or Magician and almost as strong as A Game of Thrones. It's an epic work but one that does not flounder or pad. It tells the reader exactly what they need to know whilst still sprinkling in enough worldbuilding details and secondary characters to make the setting feel alive and vivid. Jones seems to have grown immensely as a writer between the two series, an improvement in writing quality between books which I believe is unparallelled in the subgenre.

 

One of the things that sets the work apart is the setting. The clanholds and the northern territories are lands of freezing tundra; windswept, bare forests; and frozen, treacherous rivers. There is a constant chill on the air which Jones paints so vividly some readers may find themselves reaching for their gloves. The clanholds themselves are depicted with impressive depth and realism. Jones has clearly done her research on surviving in subarctic environments, and we learn about how these clans survive and live. Refreshingly, these clans don't just consist of warriors but also farmers, smiths and weavers, with women having an important and vital role to play, sometimes as chiefs. Jones doesn't go overboard with the details, but the clans are shown to be close-knit communities made up of individuals. Jones's biggest improvement has been with characterisation, developing an almost George R.R. Martin-like ability to introduce a character, nail their characteristics in a few words and ensure the reader remembers who they are when they next show up 200 pages later.

 

This extends to our supposed villains as well. Penthero Iss and Sarga Veys are fairly obvious antagonists (though still well-depicted) but the brutish Marafice Eye has a whiff of the Sandor Clegane about him, a brutish lackey with unexpected depths. Vaylo Bludd, the Dog Lord, who is set up early on as one of the main bad guys, is surprisingly humane in his own POV chapters but is still a violent and occasionally remorseless killer. Only Mace Blackhail really faills into the stock bad guy department, complete with psychopathic and rapist tendencies (for once, actually used to further the plot and character in a meaningful way rather than a random act of porno-misogynistic violence thrown in for supposed grit), though also a silver tongue which gets him out of some pretty tricky situations.

 

Our protagonists are more interesting this time around as well. Ash and Raif at first glance appear to be cover versions of Melisandra and Jack (the protagonists of the Book of Words trilogy), our callow youth heroes, but are altogether more complex characters. Ash discovers she was put on the world for a single purpose, and must thwart that purpose before thousands are killed by it, and Raif is apparently cursed to have death following in his footsteps at all times. Both characters have elements of tragedy attached to them, which makes their stories more compelling.

 

Jones rarely falters. The book is well-paced with only the conclusion feeling a little rushed. But otherwise A Cavern of Black Ice (*****) is an excellent, deftly-executed opening volume to a longer series. It is available now in the UK and USA.

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Nice one on Sowrd of Shadows Wert. Really enjoyed the start of that series. Too bad she has had some issues with getting books out on time as I have always thought she would have been a great Tor writer to finish the WoT. Although it would have been unrealsitic her style seems a very good fit.

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The Sword of Shadows 2: A Fortress of Grey Ice by J.V. Jones

Ash March has visited the Cavern of Black Ice and stalled the arrival of the evil Endlords, at least for now. She must now make her way to the homeland of the enigmatic Sull, where her true path will be revealed. Meanwhile, Raif Sevrance's role in events seems to have conclude, and he now seeks a life for himself amongst the exiles of the Maimed Men. But it seems that his destiny has not done with him yet, as he is called into the vastness of the Great Want in search of the Fortress of Grey Ice...

 

Middle volumes are always the most problematic part for any ongoing series. They don't have a clearly-defined beginning or end and structurally can end up as a bit of a mess if the author isn't careful. In the case of J.V. Jones's Sword of Shadows fantasy sequence this is even more of a danger. Planned to be five books in length, this gives her no less than three middle volumes to navigate through and retain the audience's attention.

 

She got off to an excellent start with A Cavern of Black Ice, one of the strongest opening volumes to an epic fantasy series ever written, one that showed an impressive growth in writing ability since her debut work, the somewhat more traditional Book of Words trilogy. With its considerably more nuanced characterisation, restrained toned and thorough-but-not-overwhelming worldbuilding (particularly showing that the clans may be relatively primitive, but they are not mindless savages and have complex systems of agriculture and mining), the Sword of Shadows is a more mature and interesting work.

 

This quality carries forwards into A Fortress of Grey Ice, though Jones is only partially successful in navigating through the problems of middle volume syndrom. On the plus side, she introduces several new storylines (particularly the civil war within Clan Dhoone) which make for interesting reading, expanding the scope of the story and the world without resorting to filler. Raif Sevrance's storyline, as he goes from rejected hero to a member of the Maimed Men to searching for the enigmatic Fortress of Grey Ice, is also structurally well-handled, giving the book a narrative spine with its own beginning, middle and end. Book of Words fans will also appreciate the arrival of Crope, a notable supporting character from that work, and his role in this novel (which ends in the death of a major character so impressively offhand that both Paul Kearney and George R.R. Martin would applaud it). Elsewhere, other characters and storylines suffer. Ash March spends the whole book on a journey from A to B and doesn't even get there at the end of the book. Raina Blackhail's potentially gripping story of political machinations within the Hailhouse are given very short shrift. The Dog Lord's storyline, though entertaining, seems to rely on a few too many obviously unwise decisions for it to be fully convincing.

 

The star of the book - and probably the whole series - is the wind-lashed, freezing cold landscape of the Northern Territories. Jones's research for this series appears to be formidable, with musings on the dangers of frostbite and how the climate works within an ice desert. George R.R. Martin's descriptions of the land beyond the Wall in A Song of Ice and Fire are impressive, but Jones's depiction of her frozen setting is even more impressive (as the whole series is set there).

 

A Fortress of Grey Ice (****½) is well-written and finely-characterise, with a formidably vivid setting. The plot and pacing is not as impressive as in the first book, and some storylines feel drawn out, whilst others are given relatively short shrift. However, this is still a well-above-average epic fantasy and the conclusion will leave readers eager to move onto the third book (which they can do immediately, rather than waiting five years as fans had to back when this novel was first published). The book is available now in the UK and USA.

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The Sword of Shadows 3: A Sword from Red Ice by J.V. Jones

The armies of Spire Vanis have invaded the clanholds and are marching against Ganmiddich. The clans are responding, mustering their armies to defeat the invaders and claim the prize of the Ganmiddich roundhouse. However, events back in Spire Vanis are outpacing the armies and may soon render the whole conflict moot.

 

Meanwhile, Raif Sevrance has succeeded in defeating the Endlords at the Fortress of Grey Ice, but knows the victory is only temporary. His path takes him back to the Rift, where his fellow Maimed Men are besieged by a servant of the Endlords, but he must also strike out beyond, in search of the mysterious sword known as Loss.

 

A Sword from Red Ice was originally published in 2007, five years after the publication of the previous novel in the series, A Fortress of Grey Ice. It is fair to say it faced a mixed reaction, with some readers citing it as Jones's best book to date and others as a novel with very limited plot development and poor pacing.

 

I elected not to read the novel on release, instead waiting for additional volumes to appear. Reading A Sword from Red Ice immediately after A Fortress of Grey Ice, it is clear there's been no major drop-off in quality or indeed pacing. A Fortress of Grey Ice was a slightly weaker novel than the first book in the series, A Cavern of Black Ice, because it introduced several new POV characters and storylines and the need to service all of these plus the existing characters resulted in a lessening of focus. Actually, this seems to have been one of the two main reasons for the delays to the third novel (the other being the fact that the publishers sat on it for more than a year before releasing it, due to scheduling issues): Jones had introduced even more storylines and characters to the mix and seriously pared these back in editing, allowing her to spend more time on the core characters.

 

The result is a book in which, when taken as a whole, a lot happens: Raif crosses the continent (twice), undertakes a quest, saves a city and finally finds a home and place in the world; the biggest battle in the series to date is fought, with the consequences being enormous; and the political situation within both Clan Blackhail and Clan Bludd shifts dangerously and dramatically. However, other individual storyline progress more modestly: Angus Lok only appears in the prologue and the epilogue; what he's doing for the rest of the book seems rather unclear, especially given the months that have passed in the interim. Effie Sevrance spends the whole book (though that's only four chapters from her POV) going up a river on a boat. Ash March, despite being set up as the series' second main character after Raif, spends the whole book traipsing through a wood. There is a definite sense of a dislocation of time in the novel, with some characters spending weeks or months travelling and others apparently only having a few days unfold in their storyline (Lok, most notably). I am also rather uncertain what Bram Cormac's storyline adds to that of the series overall. He spends most of this book (and the previous one) wandering around unable to make a decision about his future and angsting about it, like an introverted student on a particularly chilly gap year. He finally does commit to a new cause at the end of the novel, but it's questionable if we really needed this amount of set-up for him.

 

Of course, epic fantasies which get so big that the author loses control a little bit of them and ends up (inadvertently or not) adding more material than we strictly need is nothing new. Fortunately Red Ice is much more of a Dance with Dragons - a novel with problematic pacing and some storylines that could have been handled better but also some very fine moments sprinkled throughout - than a Crossroads of Twilight, where the reader will have more fun reading the Wikipedia summary than suffering through the novel itself. Raif reaching the titular Red Ice is a satisfyingly mythic moment. Raina Blackhail finally taking matters into her own hands and seizing control of her own and her clan's destinies is an important moment in her character arc (especially as she is arguably one of the best-written characters in the series). Ash realising the full potential of her powers is a powerful scene. If A Sword from Red Ice disappoints in some areas, it excels in others.

 

A Sword from Red Ice (****) is well-written, particularly well-characterised and its strongest moments shine. At other times the pace falters and some storylines are left under-developed (Book of Words fans hoping to learn more from Baralis will be disappointed). But a few problems aside, this is a strong addition to the series. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Edited by Werthead

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The Sword of Shadows 4: Watcher of the Dead by J.V. Jones

Raif Sevrance is in possession of the sword known as Loss. Unfortunately, he is also the 'guest' of a renegade group of Sull, who are determined to use him and his abilities for their own ends. Elsewhere, Ash March finds herself in the heart of Sull territory, knowing she will find in them her greatest allies...or her greatest danger. War continues to rage in the clanholds, with the armies of Blackhail, Bludd and Dhoone converging as Gandmiddich for a climactic showdown. In Spire Vanis the new surlord struggles to hold onto power, and in the wilds the ranger Angus Lok relentless hunts down a wily enemy.

 

Watcher of the Dead brings the Sword of Shadows series to its fourth - and hopefully penultimate (though Jones has hinted that the series may expand to six volumes) - instalment. It's a slightly slimmer novel than its forebears, being a clear 100 pages shorter than the third volume, and benefits from a tighter focus on the core storylines. Raif and Ash get a fair bit of attention, whilst Angus Lok returns to the fore after spending most of the third book missing. Effie's storyline also moves forward more satisfyingly, with her relevance to the main storyline becoming clearer. The Dog Lord and Raina Blackhail also benefit from contrasting storylines in which both seek to consolidate (or re-consolidate, in Vaylo Bludd's case) their authority in the face of opposition.

 

There are some drawbacks to this. The tightened focus mean there's no time or room for Crope and Baralis, who simply fail to appear. Also, a tight focus on a large cast in a more constrained page count means a relative lack of major progression in any one arc. So Effie spends most of the book in a roundhouse in a swamp and then takes a short trip in a boat (although a hugely important one). Raif spends almost the entire book as a prisoner of the Sull. Ash, having set out to reach the Sull Heart Fires at the start of Book 2, finally gets there halfway through Book 4 and has a couple of conversations (and the revelation of a 'major' plot twist which is tiresomely predictable, the first disappointing plot turn in the series to date). Important things happen in these chapters, but there is definitely a contrast to the very busy and forwards-moving first volume in the series.

 

Still, the series has never been action-packed and fast-moving, and Jones does give us some good battles. Raina Blackhail's storyline in fact is particularly strong, aided by the arrival of an intriguing new character, and Angus Lok's revenge storyline is extremely tense. Best of all is Raif's character arc. Back in Book 1 he was the very embodiment of the 'callow youth saves the world' trope, but by the end of this volume he is a severely traumatised, battle-hardened warrior desperately searching for himself. The subversion of the traditional fantasy hero's journey is very well-done.

 

Watcher of the Dead (****) benefits in some ways from a (slightly) shorter page count and tightened focus, but it also suffers from it, with a lack of plot progression in some storylines and some characters simply not showing up. The benefits to characterisation are clear and there are clear signs of the scattered characters starting to come together, but we're not on the home straight yet. The novel is available now in the UK and USA. The fifth volume, Endlords, is apparently still forthcoming but there has not been a firm update on its status from the author in more than two years.

Edited by Werthead

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