Book Review: The Ember Blade – by Chris Wooding

Darkwater Legacy #1

High Fantasy, Epic, Dark Fantasy

Gollancz; September 20, 2018

832 pages (HC) / 30hr 40m (AU)

5 / 5 ✪

The Ember Blade combines the typical coming-of-age fantasy with a bit of something dark, in order to create an epic debut that fails to fall under either category—yet somehow succeeds in both. Early on (for the first 10 hours or so), I was convinced that this was your general light vs. dark tale, complete with ancient evils, a chosen one, and third-party horrors awaiting to devour them all. And yet towards the latter half of the tale, it morphed into something more. Something different.

It begins with Ossia, a once great nation laid low by the Krodan, subject to Krodan rule for so long that freedom is little more than an idea. Enter Aren, a merchant’s son, obsessed with everything Krodan. Their language, their history, their law. Even the young love of his life is Krodan. They have no chance of being together, however, as Aren, as hard as he tries, is not Krodan. Enter Cade, son of a carpenter, obsessed with stories. Tales of illusion and grandeur, greatness and adventure, fame and fortune. And especially Ossia. A free, independent Ossia. Two unlikely friends against the world.

And yet when the Krodan law comes down upon them, their friendship is tested. Aren’s father is arrested for being a traitor and slain, Aren and Cade sent to a work-camp in his stead. Not only is Cade’s friendship with Aren in jeopardy, but Aren’s fascination with all things Krodan is as well. And yet with the help of some unlikely allies, they escape the camp. But… to what end? For there is something bigger than just their story between them now, and Aren and Cade—caught up in it—find themselves playing a much grander game. One that may just end with their finger in a Krodan eye, and the first piece to a free, independent Ossia. For the young prince of Krodia is due to be wed, and at his banquet shall fall the Ember Blade: a symbol of Ossian nationalism. But can Aren and Cade and their newfound allies begin the dream of a free, unified Ossia, or will they be crushed under the heel of the Krodans once again?

First and foremost, this is a coming-of-age fantasy. The main characters, Aren and Cade, definitely grow and change over the course of the text. It’s their character growth that makes the Ember Blade a success, above all else. The dynamic of their friendship is tested time and again—sometimes it bends, maybe even breaks. And yet persists throughout the entire book. Even when they’re not speaking it’s that dynamic that drives their story, whether Wooding means it to or not. I mean, there are other factors in play, too. Of course there are.

I mentioned earlier that I struggle to classify this as anything more than a coming-of-age story. I mean, it is SO MUCH more—I’m just not sure where to start. It begins with the classic CoA fantasy vibe. Light against dark, battling ancient evil with their team of misfits and mentors. An oppressed people trying to overthrow a tyrannical power. A true underdog story.

But then, something changes.

I’m not exactly sure when it happens. It begins with a crack here. A crack there. The great and noble dream of Ossia may not be that noble at all. Krodia may not be the horrid power we once thought. And slowly the realm of heroes and villains is slowly replaced. By that of people—humans—just trying to do what they think is best. The lines blur from black and white, and occasionally the story gets downright dark.

I, uh, really enjoyed it.

Chris Wooding tries something new, here. Blends it with something tried and true. And it… works. I mean, the Ember Blade may not be for everyone, but I think it will appeal to more just through its split nature. It’s not a classic good and evil battle. It’s not a grimdark piece, where everyone’s inherently selfish and the world just sucks. It’s not a clean split, a dark fantasy, or much in-between. It’s… hard to pin down. But I’d say it’s a blend of High and Epic, with just a splash of Dark. And it works. Very well, in fact.

If you needed a further reason to read it, it’s the characters. There are several POV chapters throughout, each with their own strong narrators that have their own history, morals, strengths, weaknesses and depth. In addition to Aren and Cade, there’s the freedom fighter Garric. The Druidess Vika. The prisoner Grub. The survivor Ren. A bard, an exile, a lieutenant and more. Can’t say I was thrilled to read each’s POV, but I was actually fairly well invested in everyone’s. Didn’t hate any of them, even. Each with depth of character, arcs and change and growth and regression.

A detailed world, it gave me just enough for my imagination to fill in the rest. A powerful story, though lacking in subtlety. A pretty good chunk of text—800ish pages. Or, if you’d prefer an audiobook like I did—30-odd hours. And I didn’t have any problem getting through it. No lags, as it were. Not much disinterest. For such a long book, it really kept me entertained throughout.

TL;DR

The Ember Blade is an immensely entertaining coming-of-age fantasy, set in an interesting, well thought out realm. It defies traditional light vs. dark, good vs. evil plots, instead choosing the middle ground; while committing to neither high nor dark fantasy in its telling. The text is jam-packed with POVs, each as deep and intricate AND entertaining as the last. I can’t say there was one that I was dreading, one that I had on auto-skip as I usually do in these long epic debuts. While I can’t promise that you’ll enjoy all your time reading this monster, I will predict you’ll find something you like within—something that will likely see you through to its conclusion.

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