The chief of Clan Blackhail has been killed, allegedly by raiders from the rival Clan Bludd. The new chief, Mace Blackhail, calls for war, but one of the witnesses to the attack, Raif Sevrance, knows that the Bludds were not behind it. When Blackhail's reprisal attack results in the unintended massacre of innocent women and children, Raif abandons his clan and family and flees in the company of his uncle, the city-born Angus Lok.
Meanwhile, far to the south in the city of Spire Vanis, Asarhia March is a virtual prisoner in the fortress of her foster-father, the city's surlord. When a chance to escape arises, Ash takes it without hesitation. But her adopted father has spent sixteen years preparing for the sorcery within Ash to awaken, and he will not surrender it without a fight.
A Cavern of Black Ice, originally published in 1999, is the opening novel in J.V. Jones's Sword of Shadows sequence. This series comprises five novels, four of them now available. Prior to this series Jones wrote a well-received trilogy, The Book of Words, and a successful stand-alone novel, The Barbed Coil.
The Sword of Shadows takes place in the same world as Book of Words, with A Cavern of Black Ice commencing about sixteen years after the events of Master and Fool. The two series share two characters in common, but otherwise there are no major links between them, and Sword of Shadows can be enjoyed by itself. This is helpful because Book of Words, though entertaining, was certainly not brilliant. The work of a new author, it was a mixture of clumsy writing mixed in with variable characterisation and a dark sense of cynical humour, its main distinguishing feature. Solid, but unspectacular.
Sword of Shadows is a very different series. A Cavern of Black Ice is subtle where the former trilogy was overt, restrained where the older work was indulgent. A Cavern of Black Ice is, basically, as good an opening volume to an epic fantasy as has ever been written, better than Gardens of the Moon, The Eye of the World or Magician and almost as strong as A Game of Thrones. It's an epic work but one that does not flounder or pad. It tells the reader exactly what they need to know whilst still sprinkling in enough worldbuilding details and secondary characters to make the setting feel alive and vivid. Jones seems to have grown immensely as a writer between the two series, an improvement in writing quality between books which I believe is unparallelled in the subgenre.
One of the things that sets the work apart is the setting. The clanholds and the northern territories are lands of freezing tundra; windswept, bare forests; and frozen, treacherous rivers. There is a constant chill on the air which Jones paints so vividly some readers may find themselves reaching for their gloves. The clanholds themselves are depicted with impressive depth and realism. Jones has clearly done her research on surviving in subarctic environments, and we learn about how these clans survive and live. Refreshingly, these clans don't just consist of warriors but also farmers, smiths and weavers, with women having an important and vital role to play, sometimes as
chiefs. Jones doesn't go overboard with the details, but the clans are shown to be close-knit communities made up of individuals. Jones's biggest improvement has been with characterisation, developing an almost George R.R. Martin-like ability to introduce a character, nail their characteristics in a few words and ensure the reader remembers who they are when they next show up 200 pages later.
This extends to our supposed villains as well. Penthero Iss and Sarga Veys are fairly obvious antagonists (though still well-depicted) but the brutish Marafice Eye has a whiff of the Sandor Clegane about him, a brutish lackey with unexpected depths. Vaylo Bludd, the Dog Lord, who is set up early on as one of the main bad guys, is surprisingly humane in his own POV chapters but is still a violent and occasionally remorseless killer. Only Mace Blackhail really faills into the stock bad guy department, complete with psychopathic and rapist tendencies (for once, actually used to further the plot and character in a meaningful way rather than a random act of porno-misogynistic violence thrown in for supposed grit), though also a silver tongue which gets him out of some pretty tricky situations.
Our protagonists are more interesting this time around as well. Ash and Raif at first glance appear to be cover versions of Melisandra and Jack (the protagonists of the Book of Words trilogy), our callow youth heroes, but are altogether more complex characters. Ash discovers she was put on the world for a single purpose, and must thwart that purpose before thousands are killed by it, and Raif is apparently cursed to have death following in his footsteps at all times. Both characters have elements of tragedy attached to them, which makes their stories more compelling.
Jones rarely falters. The book is well-paced with only the conclusion feeling a little rushed. But otherwise A Cavern of Black Ice (*****) is an excellent, deftly-executed opening volume to a longer series. It is available now in the UK and USA.