Over the past few years, I have thoroughly enjoyed Jen Williams’ fun fantasy series involving a badass female sell-sword and her unlikely associates. The first installment, The Copper Promise was so tongue-in-cheek and action-packed I barely came up for air while reading. The second book, The Iron Ghost, was, as Williams puts it, her Empire Strikes Back Moment. It was much darker than its predecessor. But what it lost in humour it gained in a fascinating story arc for Sebastian and his ‘brood army’. So what about the third and final installment?
I’m not sure what went wrong here. Perhaps I shouldn’t read books while I’m deep into editing my own writing, but I was very disappointed with The Silver Tide. It does seem this reaction was a singular one, with almost every other review I’ve read having been entirely glowing.
Gods, pirates, and sell-swords
At the end of The Iron Ghost, Wydrin and Frith are having fun finally knocking boots while Sebastian is wallowing in his broken heart. Wydrin’s mother, famous pirate Devinia the Red, is attempting to navigate a supposedly cursed island with untold treasure at its core. The problem is, she needs Frith’s magic to provide wind when there is none, keeping the ship on course. The job has all the features Wydrin loves – danger, money, and intrigue. The Black Feather Three set off on another doomed adventure that is derailed almost immediately. They face angry cultists, greedy and revenge-fueled pirates, time-travel paradoxes, and old foes as they try to save their world from almost certain destruction.
The troublesome final installment
Similar to other final series installments, Williams revisits magic and villains (gods and mages) we have already seen. The structure of the story plays out a lot like the previous novel, including a romance that loses all impact with the reader as it happens with the same beats and main character as it did in the last book. I continually noticed her reliance on inarticulate adverbs (I’m not an authoritarian on such matters, some adverbs are fine, but there were entirely too many), use of describing things as ‘a mess of…’ (you name it, hair, stones, trees, tentacles), and explaining characters’ actions/speech as happening ‘before they had even realised’ they were going to do or say such a thing. It grew old, fast.
By this point, it is obvious to the readers that the core three characters will survive. Take Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss knew he needed to have some impactful deaths but that none of the core four could be offed. Anya was the perfect scapegoat. But for The Silver Tide, Williams doesn’t have a character that the readers have invested in enough, outside of the main three, over the course of the other books that she’s willing to kill off. Really, there’s only one potential character to fit the bill and I have to admit I’m glad Ephemeral didn’t get the chop. But this lack of tension, knowing our favourites aren’t going to have their heads on the chopping block at any point, kept me from ever feeling on the edge of my seat. I wasn’t worried at all. Meanwhile, it wasn’t ‘fun’ or ‘new’ enough (in terms of character arcs, events, magical set-ups, etc) to elevate it past the lack of tension.
The book also suffers from an uninteresting B-plot that has the most unsatisfying, quick-dump resolution I’ve come across in a long time. For the most part, it is Wydrin’s mother Devinia at the core of this subplot. But we have not met her before this book, nor is she particularly interesting. Introduced as an infamous badass and generally poor mother, Devinia is immediately outmaneuvered by a supposedly lesser pirate and spends the rest of the novel complaining, never living up to this immense reputation. Ephemeral is tied into this plot but is sadly underused. I wanted to see more of her growth and have her a bigger decision-making agent in the narrative. Instead, she is constantly sidelined for Devinia, Ristanov, and Kellan/The Dawning Man – none of whom I cared about.
Of course, it wasn’t all bad. At the core, Williams still manages to entertain with solidly characterized central characters. It was particularly nice to see more of Wydrin’s neurosis explored, proving that even the toughest women have their relationship hang-ups (but they are still surmountable problems!). The prose is easy to digest and there’s plenty of action throughout to keep the plot afloat. However, I never felt I got the pay-off I deserved after two previous books set-up something that could have been a truly original, epic, and hilarious third novel.
Verdict: Too much retreading of ground already covered while the reader is never worried for the overall safety of the Black Feather Three. A disappointing end to a fun and inventive fantasy trilogy.