Review: The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding - 9.5/10*
I read a lot of fantasy, though I’ve never read a fantasy book that somehow manages to incorporate elements from so many other books and make them original and unrepetitive. It’s a triumph of writing, and I dare say one of the best in the genre for a very long time. I gave it five stars because it is a masterful balancing of new and old.
Please listen to what I have to say about it!
The plot picks up real quickly. Aren’s father is executed on jumped up charges of treason. Aren has no idea why, to his eye his father has always been the perfect servant to Krodan rule. Aren finds himself in prison with his best friend Cade and together they begin to hatch an escape plan. And it’s not until he is behind prison bars that Aren realises how messed up the world is. He’s spent his entire life believing the dogma the Krodan empire has fed him, and now he sees the reality of empire. Empire is evil. Empire is dominating and destructive. And it echoes the real world.
If we are to step outside this fantastic world Wooding has created (hard to do I know) but the most successful empires achieve their goal of subjugating the conquered by controlling their language and religion. The Krodan empire is no different. It’s been drawn from the efficiency of the Roman empire and the vileness of Nazi Germany. The Krodan Empire has death camps and a strict legal process that controls all aspects of life. Cough in the wrong way and you’re fucked. Travel without a permit and you’re dead. It takes a long way for Aren to realise this, and even longer for him to realise that he can work towards toppling such an awful regime.
The Ember Blade is the key. It’s a weapon of such legendary status that it can unite the fractured lands behind its bearer. It’s protected by armies and dreadknights (evil warriors who draw on dark power.) On the road to getting it, a rather random (yet compatible) party take up the quest. There number include, a druid, a minstrel, a thief, a knight and several freedom fighters. Each come with their own skill sets and abilities, and each is needed to reach the blade and pull off such a large scale heist. And I love when a party like this is used properly, it really gives the story an added edge.
But it's so much more than that!
Wooding has also gotten his hands very dirty here. He’s not reluctant to kill off likeable characters in order to keep the plot moving. There’s treachery aplenty, along with several other dark themes like suicide and drug use. There’s prisons, dungeons and monsters. And there’s also druids, knights and minstrels. It’s classic old school type epic fantasy (in the vein of Robert Jordon and Terry Brooks) though it’s distinctively modern with its undertones of grimdark plotting. There’s a standard coming of age story and a legendary sword of power. There’s Tolkienesque style chase/travel scenes with the looming threat of some dark power, though underneath it all is the grittiness and moral greyness that makes grimdark so alluring.
Indeed, The Ember Blade has many classic tropes but it’s unafraid to branch out, exploring new ideas to defy narrative expectation. And that’s kind of important. I don’t like to read predictable books, books where I know how it’s all going to end (and with fantasy that seems to happen an awful lot.) I like to be surprised. I like characters that shock me with their decisions and hidden depths. Wooding has been so careful here, not to give too much early on, and to peel back the layers slowly until his big reveals. It really kept me reading.
There’s quite a lot I could say about the characters here and how complex some of their backgrounds are, though I don’t want to get bogged down with the details. So let me simply say this: never judge people (or characters) by their moods or appearances (Garric, Fen and Grub.) Wooding really gives insight into the behaviour of them as he explored the reason for their actions and the paths they may take in the future. I loved the room for growth here and the unpredictable nature of their behaviour. Their decisions had a lot of effect, and I felt they could have gone many different ways. Coming into the ending, I had no idea how it would all go down.
So this is a rather grand first instalment in a trilogy that could be one of the best epic fantasy has ever seen. I really have high hopes for where this will go because I know it will do the unexpected.