A Cavern of Black Ice is an impressive opening entry in J.V. Jones’ dark and snowy fantasy epic, Sword of Shadows. I was invested from the start and gripped throughout as numerous hardships, betrayals, politics, magic, fate and the elements batter the characters that inhabit Jones’ world.
We are first introduced to a clansman of Clan Blackhail, Raif Sevrance. He has a unique talent that makes him an excellent archer when it comes to hunting game. In A Cavern of Black Ice‘s opening segments, Raif’s life changes dramatically and his place in the clan becomes uncertain. This is due to the fact that his morals and his quick-to-challenge nature do not align with a persuasive, wolf-like, and now pivotal superior clansman. Whereas Raif’s clan resides in a settlement amidst the snowy wastes and icy plains of the Northern Territories, the other main character Ash Marsh lives in Spire Vanis, a fortress city. The Vaingate of Spire Vanis is where a baby Ash was abandoned and left to die. Fortunately, she was found and raised as the foster child of the Surlord of Spire Vanis and Keeper of the Mask Fortress, Penthero Iss. We join Ash as she approaches womanhood and begins to question her place, relationships, and her surreal nightmares that involve pleading voices and a dark cavern.
She saw a cavern with walls of black ice. A burned hand reaching toward her, cracks between its fingers oozing blood. Dark eyes watching, waiting . . .
If I had to find similarities elsewhere in fantasy literature to describe A Cavern of Black Ice, I would summarise it as being like the following: the beyond-the-wall sections and the unpredictable cut-throat, nobody is indispensable nature of A Song of Ice and Fire, the awful-things-happen-to-your-favourite-characters emotional barrage of The Realm of the Elderlings, and the finely crafted characterisation of heroes, villains and everything in between a la Abercrombie’s The First Law.
Either way, you are not good for this clan, Raif Sevrance. You are raven born, chosen to watch the dead. And I fear that if you stay amongst us, you will watch us all die before your eyes have had their fill.
The world-building is a massive asset to Sword of Shadows‘ first book. Delivered through the eight-or-so point of view perspectives, Jones slowly reveals details about this vast, complicated, and intriguing world. Raif may reflect on knowledge passed on by his father about the dangers of clan life in the snowy wilds and Ash often contemplates the histories she has been taught throughout her lessons in Spire Vanis. As the novel progresses, seemingly isolated storylines, pieces of history, or nuggets of knowledge intricately overlap, then making sense in relation to what has come before; and this is a really rewarding experience as the bigger picture is developed. The pacing of the novel is steady, creating mystery and drama throughout. This leads to and heightens some extraordinary and scintillating stand-out moments, mental images of which will stay with me for a long long time.
The dying wind smelled of cold things from the north, of frozen lakes and ice fields and glaciers.
It is worth noting that I did have one initial concern when I started the novel, that descriptions of ice, snow, wind, frost, and the cold would get dull and repetitive yet, somehow, my worry was unfounded as Jones kept her descriptions fresh and engaging, really drawing me into her wonderful but unforgiving world. I wish to reiterate that this novel features some harsh moments, dark imagery, and scenes that could be upsetting including… ***potential spoiler following*** the rape of a main character shown through the eyes of a child’s point of view perspective.
Incorporating all of the above, A Cavern of Black Ice sets solid foundations, has many great characters, and is bursting with exciting possibilities in what could become an S-Tier dark fantasy masterpiece. 8.5/10.
A man had been hung, a popular rogue and ladies’ man, and the people of Spire Vanis had taken offense at his death. Not the fact of his death, rather the manner of it, for Penthero Iss had ordered his handsome face cut off and then stitched on backward. Ash swallowed hard. Sometimes her foster father did things like that just to see what such horrors would look like.