There are few things more wonderful than finding an author who isn’t just a one hit wonder.
I read Jones’ Watcher of the Dead series a few years ago (I’m still waiting for book five…), and I was very impressed. This woman writes some nasty, nasty stuff, but she manages to bring gore and grimness to the limelight without sacrificing human tenderness.
I’ve been waiting a long time for her next book, and given the lack of updates on her website I’m concerned that it might never happen.
The Barbed Coil is one of the author’s earlier works, and that thing which seems an increasing rarity in fantasy: a self-contained novel. There is little scope for a sequel, and things are tied off so nicely that I didn’t feel a need for one.
A brief synopsis is this. Tessa, our bold American heroine, gets teleported to an alternate Medieval-era world via a mystical gold ring. Once there she quickly becomes embroiled in the brewing war. She meets an assassin, finds out magic is real, and has the adventure of her life. Etc.
It’s not the most original plot, and the whole teleportation issue set my Mary-Sue alarm ringing, but this book works surprisingly well. So well in fact that I can honestly say I loved it.
First off, the magic is so cool. I don’t easily use the word, because in most books magic is magic. Mages throwing fireballs or summoning up spirit energy. Blah. Usually I tolerate it more than enjoy it as a feature of the story.
With this one I was impressed though. The magic is original, kooky, and even though it remains unexplained for the most part, I found it easy to relate to.
Another point is the secondary characters. Ravis is nothing new. The tortured past assassin is no less than a trope, and an overused one at that. However, Jones wrote him so well that I had no choice but to forgive her.
Angeline is also great, being an unusual character type for this type of novel. The girly-girl princess seldom frequents the darker fantasy novel, and even then rarely without a solely sexual purpose, but Angeline is a fully drawn character, faced with difficult choices and responsibilities.
The only characters I can really fault are the daddy-issue-motivated Prince Camron and his nemesis. These two were on the cringier side of cliché.
Swinging back to praise, however. Jones’ beautiful writing more than makes up for her few sins. This book is lyrical, and six hundred pages of faultless pacing. She even weaves in some nice patches of description without losing the path, and whilst the setting remains mostly in the background the world-building is decent.
The story has some good twists, some expected, others really quite surprising, and can we just talk about the gore? This is a book that lets you see the blood spurting and hear the bones crunching. Fantastic stuff.
Also, the romance.
My attitude towards romance in adventure narratives is often one of suspicion. In all honesty I do want it to be there, but only if it’s done well.
Experience has taught me to keep my expectations low. Unfortunately, if the fantasy genre has one flaw, this tends to be it. Token more than anything, embarrassingly self-indulgent, and quite often with a vibe of childish shallowness, my experience of romance in fantasy is that it tends to be more teenage masturbation fodder than an expression of fully realised adult passion.
But there are exceptions. Once in a while something comes along and proves me wrong, and this book is one such case. Subtle, and chaste, but nonetheless lovely, the delicate romantic subplot adds something worthwhile to this novel.
The main reason this book doesn’t hit the full five stars is because in places it lacks originality. The trouble with reading frequently in a single genre is that you become familiar with the clichés. I don’t know why, but according to fantasy there has never been a prince who had a good relationship with his father.
Young and proud, our noble Camron is a likeable guy, but he falls a bit flat next to the stronger characters (though the tension between him and Ravis is deftly handled).
Izgard also. Scary, yes. Well-characterised, yes. But just another power-hungry madman. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before.
Also, the ending is extremely tidy. Credit where it’s due, Jones certainly finishes her stitches and clips off the threads, but for me it was a bit too polished. The bulk of this novel is raw, sober-faced stuff. The sleek crispness of the finish was nothing bad, but personally I thought it seemed like the ending of a different book. Sweet, but a little off.
The crux of it? The Barbed Coil is not the best fantasy novel I’ve read, but there are moments of greatness, and I highly recommend it.