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Bitter Twins ***
by Author Jen Williams.
Published by Headline. Out Now
London author Jen Williams' second novel in the Winnowing Flame trilogy, after The Ninth Rain, opens with warrior woman Hestillion trapped in a cell by the evil Queen of the Jure'ilia. Other characters trekking through this ruined world include an older female called Vintage de Grazon, accompanied by her younger female friend Nanthema. (Probably the most likeable character, Vintage is given to meeting strangers with the down-to-earth demand: "Strong drink, my good man.")
Vintage and Nanthema meet a teenage boy, Eri of Lonefell, who was abandoned in a deserted mansion with his parents and after their death, carries their remains with him in a bucket.
Williams is part of the YA (young adult) female fantasy fiction writers, after the wave of dystopian action novels including The Hunger Games and Divergent, and her second novel is written in a similar vein to Tolkien or Ursula Le Guin with similar swords and sorcery.
Like these authors, she employs a great deal of talking dragons, spell-casting heroines, and much warlike brandishing of the two large axes which give the novel its name. Locations, usually the attack of "strange spider-like creatures stalking among the chaos" can be guaranteed to have suitably dramatic names such as The Bloodless Mountains.
The novel seems to lack a real quest or any sense of urgency, and at over 600 pages, Bitter Twins is not a short read. All the characters speak in stilted, 70s style dialogue bordering on self-parody, as when one character threatens another with death by dragon fire by announcing: "It makes a beautiful sight...just before we melt the eyes out of your face." However, they also incongruously suddenly switch to earthy 21st century Anglo-Saxon, as when one character replies succinctly: "Balls to that."
There's a fair amount of purple prose that Robert E. Howard would be proud of, as when one character finds themselves in a room filled with: "a twisting maze of giant green roots". They look around to see: "some of the bigger roots had been covered with unsettling images; faces are frozen in expressions of pain, mouths open wide to scream, or strange scuttling things with many legs."
There's some well-written description among the purple prose, such as when a dragon's blue eyes being described as "lost pieces of the summer sky" or when a destroyed town, blasted into rubble, has people's belongings scattered around "like innards leaking from a corpse".
After 612 pages, Bitter Twins ends on a suitably warlike declaration, as one of the characters looks into the far-off towers like "a dark fracture against the sky" and declares robustly: "Let's go and burn it all down." It's interesting and nostalgic, if overlong, read, and will make all 40somethings still missing Wizard of Earthsea feel like announcing Le Guin can still inspire 21st-century writers.
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