Jen Williams is a London-based author best known for her thrilling fantasy novels. Her first series, The Copper Cat Trilogy, was critically acclaimed and her new series, The Winnowing Flame, has continued to impress fantasy fans. The latest instalment is called The Bitter Twins. We caught up with her to find out more.
STARBURST: What’s the elevator pitch for The Bitter Twins?
Jen Williams: It’s tricky to do an elevator pitch for the second book in a series, isn’t it? Assuming you’ve read the first one: the old enemy has returned, and things are looking dire for the world of Sarn. The few war-beasts that have been born in the Ninth Rain are confused and young, and it’s up to Vintage, Tor and Noon to make sure they survive. Or I would just say it’s Lord of the Rings meets Princess Mononoke meets Voltron: Legendary Defender.
How would you describe the series to an elderly relative? Probably pretty much how I’d explain it to anyone… You know the elves from Lord of the Rings? Well, what if they were bastards, and a bit like the British Empire? And what if they discovered they could only keep their immortality by drinking human blood? And then it all goes horribly wrong.
Why are we all so fascinated with dragons? What has been your favourite dragon to write so far?
I very much enjoyed writing Y’Ruen, the goddess of destruction in the Copper Cat books (who just happens to take the form of a dragon) simply because she has no compassion or complicated feelings – she exists to kill everyone and everything, and there’s something quite gleeful about that. On the other hand, Vostok, the dragon war-beast who appears at the end of The Ninth Rain, is very much more of an actual character, and is therefore easily the most fun to write. She’s imperious and snobbish, vain and extremely forthright – with the added bonus that she can incinerate you.The books seem to have a great love for mythological beasts. What’s your favourite sort of beastie and why?
Griffins. I love a griffin. I’ve managed to squeeze them into both trilogies and I’m very pleased with myself about it.
Where did you draw inspiration for the Winnowry from? In a general sense, from all around us. The idea of women being persecuted and degraded simply for existing is not, unfortunately, an idea I had to make up purely for the book. Specifically, I was on a bus one night going down The Stand, and I saw a young woman walking under a street lamp. She was wearing a big heavy rucksack and the light made her face look like it was covered in a fine grey powder – that image triggered something in the back of my imagination somewhere, eventually leading to the fell-witches. As for the giant bats, who doesn’t love a giant bat? I loved the idea of creating a version of witches that were some distance from our traditional idea of them, but still had hints of the gothic.
If you were casting the movie of the book, who would play Vintage, Noon, Tor and Bern?
This is such a tough question! Vintage I can see as the awesome and gorgeous Gina Torres, and Daniel Henney (also gorgeous) would make a brilliant Tor, I think. Bern inevitably would be played by Chris Hemsworth. Noon I find a little harder to pin down, but maybe Claudia Kim – she does such an excellent job of being a badass as Khutulun in Marco Polo.
Which character would you most want to go out on the town with?
Vintage, no question. She’s rich, can buy her way around the fanciest bars, and she knows quite a bit about ordering a decent bottle of wine. Plus, she’s enormously good company and I suspect she’d also make sure you got home safely.Which character would you most like to sit down and have a quiet word with?
Probably Tormalin the Oathless. I think I share with Vintage a slight exasperation with him, and if anyone needs to listen to sensible advice for once, it’s our lost Eboran lord.
What was the most fun scene to write?
In The Bitter Twins, there were several scenes between Hestillion, Tor’s estranged sister, and the Jure’lia queen. I enjoyed these the most because they were the most challenging to write: Hestillion’s motivations are murky and complex, to the point where I don’t think she even quite understands why she has done the things she has done (or at least, she doesn’t want to look too closely at her reasons) – while the Jure’lia queen is a completely alien character, attempting for the first time to understand something of the creatures she has habitually attempted to exterminate.
How different is The Winnowing Flame series from your previous trilogy, The Copper Cat?
There are some similarities – they’re both fantasy, they both centre around three main characters, and there’s still a strong emphasis on snappy dialogue – but whereas The Copper Cat was, in many ways, a love letter to sword and sorcery stories, the Winnowing Flame is very much an epic fantasy trilogy. This mostly means that the story is much more sprawling, the stakes much higher, and I’m exploring different themes, such as memory, trauma, and the ghosts of history.
Will we see any more of the Copper Cat?
There aren’t any plans for more novels in the series, but I do have a Patreon where people can get access to the Copper Cat Correspondence. Each month I post up a letter from Wydrin, or Sebastian, or another character, which usually reveals a little more about their past or the wider world. It’s a fun project, and an interesting way of providing extra content.What’s next after the end of this series?
Honestly, I am not sure. I’m in the midst of writing the third and final book, The Poison Song, and while I’m up to my ears in that it’s difficult to imagine what might come next. It’s possible, I think, that I might try writing something completely different – or at least something much shorter.
Is the world of fantasy literature as welcoming and as broad as it hopes it is? That’s a complex question. I have certainly felt very welcome, and the fantasy community is a close and friendly one. On the other hand, I have also been told, in the wild territories of the internet, that I am inherently less skilled at my job because I am a woman. There is still, I suspect, an odd disconnect going on somewhere that perpetuates this idea that fantasy is a ‘genre for men’, when actually women have been reading and writing it forever.
Who are you reading at the moment? What are you top fantasy book recommendations?
I am currently reading The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, which isn’t fantasy but is fantastic. After that I have Den Patrick’s Witchsign to read, which I am very excited about. As for my top fantasy recommendations, I would, as ever, recommend Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings series for a sprawling, exciting world and characters you will remember for ever, and for something quite different and utterly charming, Uprooted by Naomi Novak.
The Bitter Twins is available as an eBook from March 8th, and can be found in paperback from August.