The Poison Song by Jen Williams (Book Review)
Warning: this review may contain spoilers for the Winnowing Flame trilogy!
So, endings are in the news recently, and arguably the biggest and most anticipated conclusion of May 2019 has to be the third and final volume of Jen Williams acclaimed Winnowing Flame Trilogy (right?). If you haven’t been paying attention, the fantastic first book, The Ninth Rain, won the British Fantasy Society award for best fantasy novel. With that novel announcing Williams’ arrival among the top tier of modern fantasy authors, all that remained to be seen was whether the rest of the series could deliver on that phenomenal start.
To my mind, there are several important elements to a successful epic fantasy trilogy*. (*Other lengths are available, but honestly, trilogies are so often where it’s at.) The balance of the ingredients may differ depending on personal taste, but they need to be there. First is the scope, which has to be epic, after all – world-ending threats, not just petty squabbles. Second is the fantasy part, by which I mean magic, monsters, inventive world-building. And a third key ingredient, as with almost any book, has to be the characters, preferably a healthy handful, each with their own story threaded into the larger tapestry. There may be other ingredients – action, mystery, suspense, romance – to spice things up, but you’ve got to have that solid base.
Without belaboring the point any further, Jen Williams’ Winnowing Flame has the bases covered, and enough extras to take it to the top level. Not for nothing did the first volume win the BFS Award, while the second, The Bitter Twins, expanded the depth of the world and the characters, unleashing the long-feared threat and leaving Our Heroes in a very sticky situation. With the release of The Poison Song, we reach the inevitable end, and I’m happy to report that all the promise of the first two books has paid off in full.
The scope of the series has become truly epic, because while we knew something was wrong in the first book, and experienced the horrifying consequences in the second, the third brings us to the final confrontation, and everything is on the line. Sometimes, the inevitability of the climactic showdown can make the final act of a series somewhat predictable, but The Poison Song deftly avoids that by throwing in a few surprises and false dawns. The Jure’lia remain truly horrifying adversaries, and with the odds stacked against our ragtag heroes, the world was never going to escape unscathed.
And neither were our characters. The cast has grown somewhat since the first book, and The Poison Song brings out a few more minor characters, while still keeping the core trio – Vintage, Noon, and Tor – at its heart, along with, of course, Hestillion Eskt, born in the year of the green bird. They all face new challenges, and play their key roles in the denouement. Even with so much going on and so much to wrap up, those four get the story-driving arcs they deserve – if not the ones they would have wished for, perhaps.
In terms of worldbuilding, having found The Ninth Rain so stunningly inventive, I did wonder if there would be much farther to expand by book three – but there was. Mysteries introduced in the first book finally get some answers, while developments from the second book bear fruit as well, joining up some of the seemingly disjointed dots of this amazingly complex world. And there is still time to colour in previously unseen parts of the map, to stunning effect, such that it seems a shame not to be able to visit more of this magical world now the series is over.
There are other spices thrown in, too, like the aforementioned mysteries, and of course some romance (or, as Jen apparently likes to call it, “boning”). Once things get going, there’s more than enough action as well, along with the great banter between characters old and new(er) that is a hallmark of Williams’ writing. It is one of the perils of epic fantasy that characters get pulled apart by the sprawling conflict, but this just makes the shared moments even more special.
I suppose if I had one criticism it would be that with the great devastation the Jure’lia cause, and their lethality to all and sundry – apart from our heroes – that it does occasionally seem a case of bridge crew and redshirts. Certainly, compared to some contemporary grimdark, you never feel the main characters are in inescapable peril – though that’s not to say they get an easy ride, by any means. Still, this has long been standard practice, and after all, what would be the point in investing in these great characters over three books if they didn’t see it through to the end (if not necessarily beyond!)? Likewise, if a few of the concluding twists and turns were not unexpected, that only means that the author has succeeded in laying the groundwork throughout the series (ahem, ahem).
In all, this was a hugely satisfying conclusion to a brilliant series, one that retains a sense of fun while still being gripping, tragic, dark, violent, and more than a little emotional. You can’t ask for more from an epic fantasy, really – unless it was for more books, so fingers crossed it won’t be long before we see the next series from Jen Williams!
THE POISON SONG is the final book in the epic Winnowing Flame trilogy, and is available now.