TALONSISTER by Jen Williams (BOOK REVIEW)
Any foolish enough to venture near the mountains and get caught were killed without trial or discourse, and their stripped, severed heads were left on the southernmost foothills as a warning. Humans, it seemed, did not learn lessons quickly or well, since the southern foothills were awash with ancient skulls, turned white and yellow with the freezing winters and bleaching sun…
Welcome to the world of Jen Williams’ brand new fantasy, Talonsister. When I learned Williams hadn’t completely abandoned us for the crime thriller genre, and that she was working on a fantasy once more, I was so excited. Williams is a talented writer who knows how to draw you into her story regardless of genre, but I’d missed her sheer imaginative genius when it comes to new worlds and magic. And Talonsister didn’t let me down. The Winnowing Flame trilogy may have been a tough act to follow, but Talonsister soars in with heart and adventure aplenty and takes up that mantle with ease.
Talonsister features a large cast of characters, each one distinct and superbly realised, as you’d come to expect from Williams. We have Ynis, discovered by a pair of bickering griffins as a baby and raised by them as their own, she has a fierce connection to her talon-sister T’rook, who stays by her side despite the controversy of her continued and persistent existence in the land of the griffins.
Leven is a magically enhanced retired soldier unknowingly on the brink of death who is experiencing flashbacks of her former forgotten life. The sight of griffins in these flashbacks lead her to the last place they reside, Brittletain.
Cillian is a Druin, a horned man of the forest, a guardian of the (spirits) and keeper of the paths through the wild wood. He’s tasked with escorting Leven, the Herald from Brittletain’s long-standing enemies the Imperium, on her journey. Queen Broudicca of Londus-on-Sea has decided that, if she’s to journey through the north, she might as well make some visits on her way and drop off some parcels to Broudicca’s rival rulers. Well, mostly on her way.
Joining them is the headstrong and apparently carefree Princess Epona, one of Broudicca’s seven daughters, who is fascinated by the mysterious weapon of the Empire across the sea, Leven.
Whilst this all plays out on the island of Brittletain, a land familiar and yet wholly magically different to our own, Envoy Kaeto escorts bone-crafter Gynid Tyleigh across the Imperium on a mission which raises increasing concerns. With the blindness of those wholly focussed on their discoveries and work above all else, Kaeto most definitely needs to keep a close eye on Tyleigh.
There is plenty going on in this story, as you can see, but at no point is the plot overwhelming or the characters confusing. This is a story beautifully braided together, the three core stories coming together to form the one whole; each story seemingly independent but inevitably intertwined with the others. Sisterhood and family is a key theme running throughout, the threads that bond us together, and what these connections might mean and lead us to. There are some truly beautiful moments throughout exploring the notion that your strongest connections needn’t necessarily be those you were born into, but rather the ones you forge for yourself.
My favourite aspect of Talonsister, what drew me in to the story and held me tight, was the strong folk vibe seeping through Brittletain. The land is covered in an ancient Wild Wood of spirits that are protected by Herne-like guardians. There are ghosts and spectres, pixies and titan bears, Queens and tribes… I almost felt I was reading a new branch of the Mabinogi, or a lost Arthurian epic. This isn’t enchanting magic, this is wild, feral, ancient magic. I couldn’t get enough of wandering these forest paths laid down by Williams and discovering where she’d lead us next.
Now that she had seen the first one, the landscape seemed alive with them. Lithe grey shapes moving around the gorse and the rocks, all heading towards the circle of standing stones… Leven could have sworn there had been no man there a moment ago, but now there was; a tall, lean man dressed in raggedly armour, his chain mail riddled with holes and an enormous sword slung across his back… The wolves came up alongside him, their yellow eyes bright even as their bodies faded and flickered like shadows…
This is an author going from strength to strength, returned to the genre she loves, and it shows. Finishing this story, I didn’t feel emotionally damaged as such, more… lonely? Like my friends have moved on and left me behind and I can’t see what they’re doing now. These are the kinds of characters that stay with you, the kind of story that replays in your mind, long since you turned the last page. An unforgettable magical fable from Britain’s Queen of fantasy.
Talonsister is due for publication from Titan Books on 12th September 2023.
Pre-order your copy on Bookshop.org
A huge thank-you to Kabriya from Titan for my copy of Talonsister – this is an advance copy and all quotes are subject to change