Ahh, the tome, the door stopper, the brick of a novel you know will take weeks to read. To invest, or not to invest, thus asketh the modern reader. I confess that as my tree grows rings, I have less and less patience for lengthy novels. Imagination, sure. Worldbuilding, meh. Major chunks of exposition, depends. Characterization, hopefully. But with such novels, the real question is: are they able to keep the reader engaged over such a number of pages to see them through to the conclusion? Chris Wooding’s 800+ page The Ember Blade (2018) is a yes—but barely.
Putting the epic in epic fantasy, The Ember Blade is, naturally, the story of kingdoms at war, the thin red lines between them, and the people who cross over them with sword and spear. Teens living in Ossian lands, Cade and Aren are friends. One the son of a local lord, the other the son of a carpenter, both nevertheless must bend the knee to their land’s conquerors, the Krodans. Ossians fiery in spirit, the boys inwardly rebel against the more orderly, somber Krodan establishment. Aren’s life turned upside down after one fateful evening, the two teens find themselves in a place they never imagined, not to mention the place furthest from that which will allow them to put Ossians back in power once again.
From here, The Ember Blade slowly, steadily expands itself. Wooding puts the book’s huge word count into character and plot rather than worldbuilding and minutiae, and as a result the narrative moves apace. Where some authors navel gaze at details, Wooding integrates only the key points with people and plot. The book feels like 800+ pages, but they do keep turning.
In accomplishing this, there are many things Wooding does ‘right’. Rather than dump a bucket of characters on the reader at the outset, they are instead doled out proportionally and at effective moments. As the reader becomes familiar with one, another is added, and eventually another, and so on. Characters that are at first distant through the eyes of another character are slowly folded into the narrative, their perspective enriching the overall tapestry. In fact, I would argue the manner in which the characters’ stories are braided together is the distinguishing positive feature of the novel.
Another thing Wooding does right is pace. As mentioned, this is directly connected to the lack of lengthy descriptions. Unlike many other writers, there is no deep look at the threads of shoes or the manner in which an arm is held aloft. Keeping this level of detail to a minimum allows things to progress relatively quickly. And thirdly, Wooding does a great job keeping things fresh. While almost all the novel’s surface elements are familiar—epic fantasy this and that, the reader can never predict what will actually happen, how the interaction of those elements will result. Most importantly, this is accomplished without the childish Gotcha! moments that writers like Abercrombie like to throw at readers. Wooding’s twists are organic to the world and threads of story built, which in turn allows the reader to build confidence in the narrative.
And there are things perhaps done not so right. Firstly would be the originality of Wooding’s world. On the surface, a lot is cookie cutter. Remove the details of character, and its generic. There are scenes, going through the bowels of the mountains for example, which have a been-there-done-that feel. There are some who would argue this situation is inevitable given how saturated the fantasy market is today. Indeed, it’s tough to be original when literally hundreds and hundreds of books are being published in the ‘niche’. Secondly, the book lacks a certain sense of maturity. With Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, or Bakker’s Prince of Nothing, the reader can feel the gravitas—the weight put on the characters by the story and circumstances. The Ember Blade does not always possess that gravitas, and more so, a few juvenile tricks are pulled. In one early scene, for example, Aren is approached by a couple of bullies, and what follows is a scene straight out of an ‘80s movie. The Skral is likewise prone to toilet humor and sex jokes. Overall it’s a narrative that doesn’t always take readers’ intelligence for granted.
In the end, Wooding put the majority of the book’s length where he should: story and character. Braiding those together wonderfully, the reader has a reason to keep the pages turning. The diction is straight-forward, practical. Neither Olde English or contemporary back alley, a simple authorial voice takes the reader steadily through a linear plot, occasionally digressing for backstory and mythology but will not wow for turn of phrase or cleverness. Somewhere between 2D and 3D, there is just enough meat on the characters to make them relatable—to make the reader care about their fate. If you’re on the fence whether or not to tackle this cement block of a book, I would say there is a better than average chance you will enjoy it. Be warned, it’s only the first in a series of what are sure to be equally lengthy novels…