I think I’m a little in love with Widdershins. It’s perfectly understandable really. She’s beautiful and clever, with a sharp blade and a sharper tongue. And I’m not the only one in love with her. There’s…come to think of it, much of my competition is significantly better with a blade than I am. Perhaps I should forget about her.
Besides, she’s a fictional character.
Why are you people looking at me that way?
False Covenant is the sequel to Thief’s Covenant, the inaugural volume in Ari Marmell’s new YA series. If you haven’t read it, you should. I detail my reasons here. Don’t let the fact that these books are marketed as YA deter you from reading them. They’re better than the bulk of what’s published as “adult” fantasy these days.
False Covenant opens about six months after the close of Thief’s Covenant, and things are not going well in the city of Davillon. The Church blames the city for the death of Archbishop de Laurent and is actively doing what it can to punish the city by openly using its influence to redirect trade away from the city. This isn’t exactly popular with the populace, and relations between parishioners and Church are continuing to deteriorate.
Everyone is feeling the pinch, including the aristocracy, the Finder’s Guild, and Widdershins, who is trying her best to honestly run a tavern. Enter the new Bishop, who sympathizes with his adopted city and hatches a plot to try to improve relations between the Church and the citizens by scaring them back into the pews.
I read a quote recently (don’t ask me where) that basically said if you want to commit great evil, attempt to do great good. That’s certainly the case here, and the other, more familiar quote about the road to Hell being paved with good intentions applies as well.
If you’ll forgive a small spoiler, what the Bishop does is enlist some men to impersonate a character out of fairy tales named Iruoch to create an atmosphere of fear in Davillon. Initially the plan works, no one is seriously hurt, and worshipers return to services.
Until the real Iruoch shows up. He’s a nasty piece of work and really creepy. His fingers are unnaturally long, and he can walk on them like a spider. He can also walk up walks and across ceilings. He drains bodies of their blood and life essence, leaving dry husks. The fact that much of the time he tends to talk in a sing-song nursery rhyme cadence and is accompanied by a chorus of giggling children’s voices only adds to the creepiness factor.
Meanwhile, Widdershins has a new man in her life. And not in a good way. He comes out of nowhere, knows far more about her than he should, and makes it clear that his intention is to cause her serious problems.
How Marmell weaves these two plots together is an example of a writer at the top of his game. I wasn’t expecting the approach he took, but I have to admit it made perfect sense. And the epilogue was unexpected, although again perfectly logical, setting the stage for many more adventures.
The voice Marmell uses is wonderfully snarky and at times downright hilarious. I’ve said a time or two before in these reviews that it’s hard to get me to laugh out loud. This book did it twice. I’m not sure, but that might be a record.
And the humor is needed. This is in many respects a very dark book. It could easily have sunk to a level of bleakness that would make A Song of Fire and Ice look like Pollyanna. And yet it doesn’t. Marmell doesn’t shy away from the emotional effects of what happens, but he doesn’t revel in them, either. Another quote I’ve seen recently is that good sword and sorcery has a strong infusion of horror. Marmell writes that type of sword and sorcery, and he writes it well. The humor helps to alleviate the horrors. Striking this type of balance is tough trick to pull off, but the author makes it look easy.
All of the major supporting characters from Thief’s Covenant, including Widdershins’ personal deity Olgun, are back. At least all the ones that survived to the end of that book. Their relationships will continue to grow, although not all of them will survive to the end of this book. If you read it, you’ll understand what I mean when I say I have a bone to pick with Marmell over the permanent change in Widdershins’ relationship with one of these characters in particular. (No, I won’t tell you which one. Read the book yourself.) But the characters are fully realized, three dimensional people, not archetypes or stock characters. Even most of the “villains” are sympathetic and act with understandable motives, Iruoch being the exception. They don’t all get along, they don’t all like each other, and those interactions raise this book above your standard, generic fantasy.
I haven’t read all the fantasy series Pyr has published or is in the process of publishing (but I’m working on it, Lou). Of the ones I’ve read, my two favorites until now have been Jasper Kent’s Danilov Chronicles and Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy. Add to that list Ari Marmell’s Widdershins’ Adventures or whatever the formal title is. I’ll continue to read about her adventures as long as Marmell continues to write them. There’s not another title scheduled that I know of, but I hope that will change soon. In the meantime, I’m going to read the rest of Marmell’s work, starting with The Goblin Corps.
As I said at the beginning of this review, don’t let the YA label deter you from reading this series. It’s one of the freshest, darkest, funniest, and best sword and sorcery series being written today and should appeal to readers of all ages. It’s great fun and reminded me of why I like fantasy, and sword and sorcery in particular, in the first place. I hated to reach the end of it.