Does no-one have fun in Fantasy fiction any more? I ask because so many of the Fantasy novels I’ve read recently are about tortured souls having a horrible time in invented countries that no-one would choose to live in. I wish I could tell you that this week’s recommendation – `The Copper Promise’ by Jen Williams – was completely different but that wouldn’t be true. In many ways this novel is a throwback to the Sword and Sorcery romps of the mid 20th century but with added gloom and gore. Thankfully, it still manages to be an entertaining read. `The Copper Promise’, which came out in 2014, is easily available in paperback or as an ebook and there is already a sequel called `The Iron Ghost’.

Young Lord Frith of Blackwood needs knowledge and power if he is to carry out his plan to avenge his murdered family. He begins by hiring two of the most famous sell-swords in all Ede – Wydrin, the Copper Cat of Crosshaven and her huge friend Sebastian, who was once a Knight of Ynnsmouth. Their first task is is to help him search the haunted Citadel of Krete, which is said to have `a thousand grisly ways to kill you, each more unpleasant than the last’. Wydrin and Sebastian’s companion, Gallo, has already disappeared inside the Citadel while treasure-hunting, so they are keen to find him. Frith is only interested in a legend that powerful mages, from the era when gods and goddesses walked the earth, still inhabit the labyrinth below the Citadel.

The labyrinth proves to be every bit as dangerous as expected and the reunion with Gallo is not a happy one. The adventurers are warned that the mages imprisoned Y’Ruen`a creature of unspeakable evil’ under the Citadel and that she is awake and breeding an army. When they refuse to turn back, they unleash a monster on the world.  Wounded Sebastian finds that he has a blood-link to the goddess Y’Ruen’s army of ferocious daughters while Frith gains magical powers that he does not know how to use.

Transported by magic to Blackwood, the adventurers have a perilous encounter with Fane, the man who tortured Frith and murdered his family. With help from a Secret Keeper, Frith is able to take the hidden path to the treasure vault that Fane was searching for. Its contents send Frith on another quest for knowledge – a quest that takes him to a mysterious island. Meanwhile, Wydrin does things she regrets and embarks on a desperate voyage to save her brother, while Sebastian feels so guilty about the death and destruction caused by Y’Ruen’s army that he makes a terrible bargain. Can Frith, Wydrin and Sebastian act together to confront a goddess and save their world?

Chapter 5 of `The Copper Promise’ ends with the words – `The haunted Citadel awaits’. Could you resist reading on? I certainly couldn’t. No-one enjoys a haunted citadel more than I do so I was rather miffed when this one was totally destroyed a few chapters later. Fortunately the book still has plenty of the other ingredients you need for a rip-roaring Sword and Sorcery adventure – including killer bears, twin villains with demonic powers, an invisible bridge, a deity in disguise, a magical suit of armour, a pirate ship versus dragon combat, an eerie mountaintop Rookery with monstrous guardians and, as Wydrin remarks in the sequel, plenty of `sneaking about…and old fashioned beating people up’. None of this is particularly original but the thrills and chills come thick and fast.

For Fantasy buffs like me, the interest lies in seeing how Williams has updated the Sword and Sorcery genre for 21st century readers. `The Copper Promise’ has no pseudo-medieval dialogue; all the characters speak in a modern idiom whether they are knights or priestesses, mystics or demons. This is probably wise but Williams is no great stylist and I do miss the rich and subtle language of Sword and Sorcery masters such as Jack Vance (see my June 2013 post on `The Dying Earth’) or Fritz Leiber. The violence in `The Copper Promise’ is described in much more graphic detail than it would have been in older novels. You could argue that this makes the book more honest about the brutal consequences of wielding a sword, whether you’re a hero or a villain. The passages written from the viewpoint of Y’Ruen’s murderous daughters as they massacre everyone they meet almost tip the story into the Horror genre, yet they also show some of the daughters gradually developing individuality and human feelings. Williams is a writer with emotional intelligence and her main characters have more capacity to change and deepen than most of the iconic characters from the golden age of Sword and Sorcery.

It is clear that Williams has been strongly influenced by two of these iconic character – Fritz Leiber’s treasure-hunting, sword-fighting duo, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (see my July 2014 post on `Swords and Deviltry’). In this updated version, huge but smart northern barbarian Fafhrd becomes massive, mountain-god worshipping barbarian Sebastian and small, crafty but impulsive Mouser becomes diminutive dagger-fighter Wydrin, nicknamed the Copper Cat. In a further contemporary twist, sensitive Sebastian has been thrown out of a religious order of Knights for being gay while Wydrin is a woman who likes to drink, gamble and take stupid risks. This pairing works wells. Sebastian and Wydrin’s friendship is oddly convincing but I never believed in them as carefree rogues. They have too much emotional baggage and they lack Fafhrd and Mouser’s zest for adventure and mischief. There is less humour in `The Copper Promise’ than I was expecting because the plot rapidly takes several grim turns.

The standard treasure-hunting quest is expanded by many other plot-lines because Williams wants to explore the lives and choices of her leading characters. Several past and potential love stories are treated with surprising delicacy and it isn’t easy to predict whether the duo will become a trio again. Can anything be done to reverse Gallo’s alarming condition and will arrogant aristocrat, Frith (literally a tortured soul) go from client to companion? If you are a reader in search of gay heroes in Fantasy, `The Copper Promise’ could be the book for you. Honourable, guilt-ridden Sebastian is an immediately sympathetic figure, which makes the dark path he eventually chooses to take all the more unnerving.

Wydrin is less interesting and her (mainly self-inflicted) personal problems don’t seem as well integrated with the main plotline as Sebastian’s do. However, Williams does have fun with Frith’s (and so many male authors and cover-artists’) fantasy of what the Copper Cat might be like, `a tall, curvaceous woman, with hair as red as blood tumbling unbidden to her waist, a pair of green eyes as playful and cruel as a cat’s, and armour that perhaps did not leave much to the imagination. In truth the Copper Cat was a young woman of average height with short, carroty hair, freckles across her nose and almost every inch of her covered in boiled leather armour.’ This passage alone is enough to show that `The Copper Promise’ is traditional Fantasy with a modern slant. If you are up for high adventure in good company, this is a series worth trying. Until next time…