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“The Fade” by Chris Wooding


I’ve enjoyed two of Chris Wooding’s series, the Firely-goes-Steampunk adventures in the Tales of the Ketty Jay series and the Japanese-themed epic fantasy series “The Braided Path”. In between those two series he also wrote a standalone fantasy novel set in a world of underground caverns where civilisations are engaged in a long war from supremacy far beneath a surface that is so hostile life can barely survive there.

The novel starts literally in the middle of the story as Orna, a highly skilled assassin and warrior who is a ‘Cadre’, an indentured servant working for a wealthy merchant family, is caught up in a disastrous battle that leaves her husband and fellow Cadre dead and her captured by the enemy. The rest of the books moves both forward and backwards from this first chapter, alternate chapters either moving forward in time or moving back through a series of flashbacks showing key moments in Orna’s past life. In the first plotline Orna first has to survive (which presents both physical and mental challenges) and then escape from prison inside an enemy fortress, knowing that even if she does she would then face a long and arduous journey home through dangerous territory. Despite the problems and dangers she is determined to return, both to see her son, who joined the army against her wishes, and to investigate whether someone on her side has betrayed her nation to the enemy. The second plotline covers her entire life from an idyllic childhood through slavery, war and her career as a professional killer. Along the way incidents from her past turn out to have relevance for things happening in the present day and the flashbacks do a good job of gradually revealing Orna’s character with mysteries introduced early in the book eventually being explained.

Although I think the flashbacks do a good job of providing characterisation and allowing for more detailed world-building, I think they do suffer slightly from often not being quite as compelling as the present-day story. Orna’s escape from the prison is particularly tense, she can’t escape alone so is forced to ally with some of the other prisoners and events show both sides of her character as she is alternately compassionate and ruthless. I think this part of the book also has the best supporting characters since Orna’s fellow inmates are more interesting than her late husband or her son who feature heavily in the flashbacks. The story is narrated by her, which I think works well and it does allow for some subtle misdirection as Orna’s misreading of some of the other characters becomes significant in the plot. The book does a good job of making her likeable despite some of the horrible she has done and ends up doing since it does a good job of showing how she became the person she is.

The world-building is fascinating, it is perhaps arguable whether the plot really needed to be set in an underground world but it does make for a dramatic and memorable backdrop for the events in the story. Particularly good is the characters’ instinctive fear of the surface, justified by one tense sequence as Orna is forced to travel through the unforgiving landscape where being out in full sunlight would be a fatal mistake. Although there is a fair amount of detail in the world-building it also does a good job of suggesting that there is a lot that we haven’t seen, one example is the mentions of various non-human races who mostly play little role in the story. While the story itself is adequately concluded in one book without any obvious need for a sequel, it would be interesting to read another book further exploring the world even if it wasn’t directly connected to The Fade.

In terms of writing it is perhaps closer in tone to Wooding’s Braided Path series rather than the more escapist Ketty Jay series. While the writing in the Braided Path books could be a bit uneven at times I think The Fade is generally better-written than Wooding’s earlier series.

It isn’t the modern fashion for fantasy novels to introduce a complex and intriguing world and tell an entire story in a standalone novel of only 300-odd pages, but I think The Fade does it very well.

Rating : 8 / 10

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