Today I’m delighted to be joining the blog tour for Jen Williams’ The Poison Song, the conclusion to her Winnowing Flame trilogy. I’m listening to the first book, The Ninth Rain on audiobook at the moment and it’s wonderful. I’ve got book 2, The Bitter Twins lined up (and signed when I met Jen at Edge-Lit last summer).
Today though I’ve got an extract from the start of book 3 for you.
Ink. And paper. In this tower built with the silence of women, I have been given back my voice.
The room is still a cell, in a way. The walls are still black stone and my window is still barred, but when the door – of old, blackened wood – is closed, I cannot be seen. There is a bed, a place to wash myself, and a small wooden desk, with ink and paper and pen.
They will not know what they have given me. Winnowry agents are expected to write reports on their missions, and this is what the desk and its contents are for, but in it I see an extraordinary thing.
The curse of the Winnowry is silence and forgetfulness. So many women have entered these black towers, passing out of their lives and out of Sarn, into nothingness. Their lives end here, unremarked, and they are buried deep in the cold sand. Of them and their lives, their stories, nothing is known.
I have lived in that, have felt the slow creeping terror that I am forgotten by the world. Have watched women with pasts as colourful and as unique as tapestries turn to slow and silent stone as their humanity was leeched from them. Are you really speaking if no one can hear you?
But, ink and paper are now mine. In a small way these women’s stories will be recorded, and I will give them voices – even if they must be secret ones.
Extract from the private records of Agent Chenlo
‘Put that flame away! Unless you want to go back to your cell?’
The girl looked up at her, startled, and Agent Chenlo smiled to lessen the harshness of her words. These girls, she reminded herself, were not yet used to the licence they’d been given, limited as it was, and even less used to the idea that a misstep wouldn’t automatically earn them a freezing bath or a beating. The tiny lick of green flame that had been curling in the girl’s palm immediately vanished.
‘Put your gloves back on, Fell-Lisbet, and here, look.’ Agent Chenlo gently turned the girls to look back at the Winnowry. The small jetty they stood on was chilly and damp, and the little boat docked there smelled overpoweringly of shellfish, but the Winnowry remained its black, imposing self, looming over the fell-witches like a threat. You see those windows there, that go all the way up the chirot tower? And those in Mother Cressin’s territory? A sister or a father may look out of those windows at any time, or even the Drowned One herself,’ she ignored the mutter at her use of this forbidden phrase, and they could see us, huddled down here on this grey day. And winnowfire, even the tiniest flicker, will draw their gaze like that.’ She snapped her fingers for emphasis. She did not wear gloves herself today. “It is so bright, it is like a beacon to them. And do you think that if you are caught using your abilities without permission they will allow you to become agents yourselves?’
The girls shuffled and muttered as one, picking at their scarves and casting shy glances at the towers. They liked Agent Chenlo because she gave warnings before punishments, and because she called the winnowfire an ability and not an abomination – at least when she was out of earshot of the other agents.
‘Come on, let’s get those barrels on board, or we’ll be late. Quickly now’
The girls returned to the task at hand. Today was the beginning of their introduction to the business of the Winnowry, the daily and weekly tasks that kept the order going. They would load the barrels of akaris up onto the little boat, and make the quick crossing to Mushenska, where they would be unloaded again. They would then accompany Agent Chenlo to the trading house, where much of the akaris would be sold in bulk to the highest bidders. A unique drug that could only be crafted within the intense heat of winnowfire, akaris gave its user a deep, dreamless sleep – unless it was cut with a variety of stimulants, in which case the effects were rather more lively. Officially, only the Winnowry could supply the drug, and thanks to this little monopoly, they could happily charge through the nose for it. Once the akaris had been changed into useful coin, Agent Chenlo and the novice agents would return across the channel of grey water, and that would be that. Small steps, but important ones: learning how to conduct themselves out in the world, showing that they could be trusted. If any one of the four girls stepped out of line, it would be up to Agent Chenlo to admonish them, which could mean anything from a severe dressing-down to having their life energy removed to the point where they passed out. She was authorised to kill them, if she had to, and she carried the silver-topped cudgel, normally worn by the sisters, at her belt, but Agent Chenlo had never had to use it.
She watched them for a moment, rolling the barrels up the gangplank, observed by the wiry captain and a spotty cabin boy. The barrels were heavy and sometimes the fell-witches found the work too difficult, weakened as they were by years spent in damp cells eating gruel, but this group were making the best of it. Satisfied that they’d be able to manage, Agent Chenlo turned away to look across the sea to Mushenska, and all of the familiar ordinariness of the day was chased away by the sight of an impossible shape in the skies over the city; a nightmare coming into focus. She made an odd noise, somewhere between a yelp and a gasp, and heard the captain shout something. One of the girls let out a little shriek.
A dragon was flying over the sea towards them. It was a magnificent thing, covered in pearly white scales, its wings bristling with white feathers. It wore a harness of brown leather and silver, and there was a young woman sitting on its back, her black hair flapping wildly in the wind and a furious expression on her face. Agent Chenlo turned back and shouted at the girls.
‘Go! Get on the boat now. You,’ she gestured at the captain, ‘get them to the city. Cast off immediately.
The man opened his mouth to argue, and she raised her hands in a clear threat. ‘Do it, captain, or I will sink your miserable boat myself.’
The novice agents were all either staring at the dragon – it was so close now, so close – or staring at her, their eyes wide. Agent Chenlo clapped her hands together once, sharply, and the spell broke. As one, the young women ran up the gangplank, and as they disappeared below decks, she felt a surge of relief. From the towers, bells were ringing as various people sounded the alarm all at once.
Chenlo hesitated on the jetty, uncertain what to do next. Knowledge of a number of recent events jostled for her attention, but one fact was clearer than anything else: as unlikely as it seemed, the dragon had to be a legendary war-beast from distant Ebora, and the young woman riding on its back had every reason to be furious with the Winnowry.
The Poison Song by Jen Williams is published by Headline and is out on 16th May 2019. You can find Jen on Twitter @sennydreadful. Many thanks to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the tour.
Ebora was once a glorious city, defended by legendary warriors and celebrated in song. Now refugees from every corner of Sarn seek shelter within its crumbling walls and the enemy that has poisoned their land won’t lie dormant for long.
The deep-rooted connection that Tormalin, Noon and the scholar Vintage share with their Eboran war-beasts has kept them alive so far. But with Tor distracted, and his sister Hestillion hell-bent on bringing ruthless order to the next Jure’lia attack, the people of Sarn need all the help they can get.
Noon is no stranger to playing with fire and knows just where to recruit a new – and powerful – army. But even she understimates the epic quest that is to come. It is a journey wrought with pain and sacrifice – a reckoning that will change the face of Sarn forever.