2023’s Talonsister is the first of two books in Jen Williams’ latest secondary-universe fantasy Talon duology.
Transformed (at the cost of her memories and through the application of processed titan remains) into a nigh-superhuman Herald, Leven repaid the Starlight Empire with eight years of service. She is now retired.
Plagued by visions of northern Brittletain, Leven resolves to visit that mysterious island to see why she has memories of a region that, as far as she can tell, she has never visited.
On the far side of the Channel of Giants lies the great island of Brittletain. In Brittletain’s north live the griffins. Griffins represent one of the few thriving communities of “titans,” as humans deem the great beings that dominated the world before humans swarmed across it. Wise humans avoid the ferocious predators.
Curiously, one human has been adopted into griffin society. Discovered as a foundling baby, Ynis was not eaten. Friction between a teen Ynis and certain xenophobic griffins leads to her exile, with her griffin sister T’rook in tow. This in turn leads to Ynis becoming what amounts to a griffin priest, and entangles her in a mystery: why have humans begun hunting griffins?
On the continent, covert agent Kaeto and his youthful assistant Belise are ordered to escort visionary researcher Tyleigh to the Black City, ruins from which no visitor ever returns. Tyleigh invented the means by which titan remains can be used to transform humans into Heralds1. What marvels will Tyleigh find in the forbidden city of certain doom?
Leven heads north, toward griffin territory, with a minder. Druin Cillian has been detailed by Queen Broudicca of Londus to watch the former Herald, who might be dangerous.
The journey takes the two through the Wild Woodand across cultivated Brittletain. This provides Leven with first person experience with the natural hazards of the island. She is also introduced to the ruthless politics of a quiltwork of petty kingdoms, something of which the naïve Herald had no previous knowledge.
Surounded by hostile nature spirits that see Heralds as an abomination and monarchs eager to use a representative of the hated empire as a patsy, will Leven survive long enough to learn what connects a veteran Herald with a much younger woman raised by griffins? Or will she simply die in an interesting way?
This is the sort of secondary world in which the geography is patterned on real world locations. Brittletain is Britain, while the Starlight Empire is located on an analog of the European mainland2. Names and titles are likewise inspired by real world names, as readers will no doubt realize.
This book is the first half of a duology. It’s heavy on establishing the setting, characters, and the stakes. It sets up conflicts but does not resolve them. One might go so far as to say the novel provides a cliffhanger-rich environment. Since this is part one of two, closure awaits in the next volume. Or so one hopes.
Williams has a lot of material to cover and wrote a big book (560 pages in hardback) to cover it. On first glance I expected that the novel would be more than I can get through in a day. I found out that I was sufficiently intrigued by the characters and events that I read it all in one go. Good to know I can still do that.
While this book is somewhat reminiscent of traditional epic fantasies in which our heroes save the world from the big bad, Talonsister differs in several respects. First, the three plotlines introduced in this volume barely contact each other (so far). Second, as far as this volume is concerned, the protagonists do not so much save the world as put it in tremendous peril.
Interestingly, this is the second series by Williams that I have read in which someone makes what is clearly a terrible deal with someone who cannot be trusted. I’ve only read two series she wrote (plus various stand-alones). Is making foolish bargains in volume one a frequent quirk of her plotting? If it is, that reminds me of Tanith Lee, who put orphans in just about everything she wrote3.
Talonsister is available here (Amazon UK). I did not find it at the US or Canadian Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, or Chapters-Indigo, or even Kobo4.
1: Short-lived, as it turns out. Heralds last about eight years. Kaeto’s assignments have included quietly disposing of sickly Heralds on the verge of exposing that flaw in the program.
2 Because the plot is centered on Brittletain, so are the maps. It’s not clear if the alternate Eurasia has its own versions of India and China or if the continent ends somewhat past what would be the Urals in our world.
3: Of the forty-eight novels I read in a Year of Tanith Lee, there were forty-five missing mothers and thirty-eight missing fathers.
4: In the good old days, I’d point North American readers to Book Depository, but of course Bezos killed that. Fucker.