After reading an advance copy of A CAVERN OF BLACK ICE, I have to give it an overall thumbs way up. It is a monster of a book in terms of size (of course, any fantasy reader who's slogged through all of THE WHEEL OF TIME won't flinch at a mere 736 pages), but after assimilating the various viewpoint characters in the first few chapters, it became pretty much impossible to put down. Once I was able to get my work squared away to actually be able to pick up the book, I finished it in five days (staying up well past my bedtime each night). That said, let's move on the the book itself.
The most overpowering aspect of the novel is the presence of cold. Having read the author's words on her website about the research for the novel, I expected to be bombarded with images of ice and wind and such, but I didn't expect them to be so powerful. I actually shivered more than once as I accompanied Raif and Ash on their journey to Mount Flood. Sometimes when an author really nails down a setting, it can become like another character in the book. J.V. Jones has done exactly this in A CAVERN OF BLACK ICE. It seemed as thought the cold was actually pitting itself against the protagonists, and I found myself wondering sometimes if they would survive it.
Now on to the plot. It was a bit confusing (and I don't consider myself an unsophisticated reader), but I expect the plot of any fantasy novel that is the first in a trilogy to be a bit confusing. After all, you're only reading what amounts to the first third of a one long story. I'm still trying to sort out the names and accomplishments of all the past and present Clan leaders and the past Surlords. Still, it was very compelling (as the above testimonial to my lack of sleep will support), and after reading the book, I wait for the next volume to find out more about the mysteries of the Phage, the Sull, Raif's title of Watcher of the Dead, what happened to Angus Lok, will Ash discover anything about her birth parents, and what is the Sword of Shadows?
As the author pointed out on her website, the first and last words cannot be revealed without giving too much away, and the last word alone would be enough to get me to keep reading the trilogy.
As for the characters, it is my opinion that J.V. Jones characterization is the strongest point of her writing. She quite simply creates the most vivid, likable (and unlikable, sometimes at the same time) and believable characters in fantasy today. Ash March, Raif Severance, Angus Lok, Penthero Iss, Marafice Eye; each of them seemed at first to be stereotypical fantasy characters, but each of them surprised me with their unpredictability. My particular favorites were Raina Blackhail, Vaylo Bludd, Marafice Eye, Mal Naysayer and the Crouching Maiden.
A CAVERN OF BLACK ICE takes place in the same world as THE BOOK OF WORDS, and its connections to those previous book are (so far) few, but profound. I cannot say that I liked this first book of the new trilogy better than its predecessor (it would be hard to beat Jack, Melli and the others), but I will say that it promises to be stiff competition. Now if only Bodger and Grift would show up in book two.