The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams was released in the UK in 2017, promptly won the British Fantasy Award, and then went about three years before US publication—a sure fire recipe for finding itself on lots of “underrated treasures” lists. I grabbed a copy during some sale or another and then let it collect virtual dust until r/Fantasy’s Feminism in Fantasy book club encouraged me to pull it off and give it a read.
The Ninth Rain is very much the opener to an epic fantasy trilogy. There’s memory of a bitter, hard-won war, leaving the victors a shell of their former selves, the enemy vanished, and the landscape dotted with mysterious artifacts. Will war return? Of course. What will it look like? That’s what The Ninth Rain means to show.
The majority of the perspective is split between three characters. One is a middle-aged vintner traveling the countryside trying to find artifacts and glean what meaning she can from them. Her assistant is a member of a powerful and long-lived race whose taste for human blood gives them unnatural healing ability before poisoning them in the end. And the final lead is a young woman imprisoned for her ability to steal vitality from living objects and turn it into powerful winnowfire.
The opening book in an epic fantasy trilogy will inevitably feature plenty of exposition, but the scholar lead of The Ninth Rain provides an opportunity to work all of that background worldbuilding neatly into the narrative itself. The threat of the enemy’s return is enough to lend some stakes, and the scholar is interesting enough to make a whole lot of exposition and lore genuinely fun to read about.
Unfortunately, the major conflicts of book one weren’t as interesting as the lore. There was a whole lot done to set up an overarching trilogy antagonist, but book one’s intermediate antagonists felt shallow and often predictable, and the weakness of their—admittedly brief—perspective sections robbed the story of some momentum in climactic moments.
Those climaxes still did plenty of good as series setup, and there were some individual elements that paid off in book one. And coupled with the generally strong writing quality, they make it easy to see promise in the full trilogy. But despite quality prose and an interesting lead character, book one on the whole was a bit of a mixed bag.
Recommended if you like: to be in an epic fantasy world for the long haul, field research.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Queernorm Setting, Mundane Jobs, and Multiverses and also features Mythic Beasts.
Overall rating: 14 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.