REVIEW: The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding

Last Updated on February 14, 2024

The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding was a recommendation by fellow Grimdark Magazine reviewer, James Tivendale, for which I’m very grateful. Just so you’re left in no doubt as to which way this review is going to go, I’ll kick things off with this opening declaration: stand aside JRR Tolkien, GRR Martin and Joe Abercrombie, for Chris Wooding.

Yes, you read that right. The Ember Blade is hands down the best fantasy novel I’ve ever read. I can only think of two things that suck about it: 1. The sequel is not yet published, and 2. The blurb on Goodreads and Amazon is poorly written and makes The Ember Blade sound like a stirring of the same old soup. But it is not, for this book is 1000% the real deal.

34673711I’ll qualify my opening ravings by disclosing that the main themes in The Ember Blade had a particular resonance with me, since I was raised in Malta, a former British colony, by parents who were both Anglophiles. I can still recall once criticising a book on ‘famous lives’ which I’d received as a birthday present, by stating that it contained too much of a focus on British people, as if no one else in the world also made their own contribution. It earned me a stern rebuke from my mother who informed me that this primary focus was merited since the Brits set the standard in everything and do everything in proper and orderly fashion.

Which is why I could instantly identify with the book’s young protagonist Aren and his sidekick Cade, two Ossian boys who are raised in a country conquered and colonised by the Krodan Empire. Growing up they are taught that everything Ossian is backwards and to be forgotten, while they should aspire to learn and adopt Krodan ways. Aren is raised as a Krodan and constantly dismisses his Ossian background, unlike his closest friend the low-born Cade, who constantly pokes fun at Aren’s posturing while also reminding him that he is essentially a white raven i.e. an Ossian doing his best to be something he’s not.

Aren ignores Cade’s jibes, keen as he is to embrace the ways of what he perceives as the Krodan master race. He faithfully adopts their faith, manners, dress, culture and cuisine, while also enjoying a dalliance with a local Krodan girl, albeit against her family’s wishes. Yet his whole world comes crashing down when he is unjustly separated from his father and arrested along with Cade, with both boys taken to a mine where Krodan captives are worked to death. I could go on and on about what happens next but I shan’t, since I couldn’t live with ruining the sheer delight of this novel for any aspiring readers. Suffice to say that I’ve not often encountered themes of colonisation and rebellion so powerfully, intricately and movingly described, both in fantasy and other genres.

But be warned: it is a really long book. Yet there’s no sagging, irrelevant, mind-numbingly boring scenes like hobbits bagging gas with Farmer Maggot or being sung to sleep by Goldberry in the house of Tom Bombadil. The opening chapters are a carefully crafted build up until things pick up (the gentle and unhurried narration on Audible doesn’t help matters, so that I turned the speed up from 1 to 1.4, which suddenly ticked things along at a satisfying pace). It’s all a bit like a snowball beginning to roll down a hill before you are seized by the collar and hauled along for such a fast and exhilarating ride that a huge novel suddenly seems far too short.

The quality of writing is extraordinary, holding its own with any literary novel while not using hard words for the sake of it. The character building and plot twists are divine. The Grimdark element is present throughout, with real consequences for each of the characters’ actions and there being no convenient quick fixes or sudden deus ex machina moments to dilute the suspense which is ratcheted up further with each page turned. Wooding’s world is also possessed of a magic which is soft but intensely deep and powerful, with far-reaching consequences.

The interactions between the characters are extremely engaging, with each of them possessed of credible personal sufferings, troubles, strengths and aspirations. Their cultures and backgrounds are intricately set out in a world that’s both highly credible and immersive. I loved each member of the ‘fellowship of the blade’ (for want of a better description) and in Garric and Grub I’ve added two more awesome characters to my personal pantheon of favourite characters in fantasy, which includes Gandalf, Aragorn, Silk, Glokta and Logen Ninefingers.

The Ember Blade contains the well-worn fantasy tropes of perilous escape, bildungsroman, quest, rebellion, love triangle and so many other arcs and sub-plots which have been done before. But the way Wooding has blended and remixed it all is just to die for. There’s little to no gallows humour like that used by Abercrombie, yet overall this pays off since this sort of humour would only serve to dilute the real sense of danger that lurks at the edge of each page so that you can almost taste it. In fact I can’t count the number of times my mouth went dry or my stomach knotted up in fearful anticipation while reading this book. I also started biting my nails again. Yet the eventual payoff and ending are so good I felt like I needed a bone-crushing hug afterwards to stop me quivering all over, overwhelmed as I was by the quality of this novel.

So it’s a five on five read, I’d give it ten on five if it were up to me. A brilliant reminder of how intense and exceptional an experience awesome fiction can be when it’s done well. And at this point, phew, I’ve run out of superlatives, and am not quite sure what else I can say to make you pick up The Ember Blade right now. You can thank me later.

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James Vella-Bardon

James lives in Sydney with his young family and a maniacal cavoodle. Recipient of a few international literary awards and nominations, he enjoys reading gritty thrillers filled with moral dilemmas and a real sense of danger.