The narrative structure alone made it a better book just because, unlike its predecessor which was made up of four novellas, it is a single continuous plotline. Given that the story starts with a time jump after The Copper Promise, there are some chapters which occasionally go back in time to provide some continuity to the events from the end of the first book. Jen Williams demonstrated a higher standard of writing in this instalment while retaining prose that is still direct and easy to read.
Maintaining its classic fantasy slant of sword and sorcery, and great adventures, the tone of The Iron Ghost takes a darker edge as it increasingly deals with concepts of power, suffering, death and madness. With the return of the most celebrated mage ever to live in Ede, there is significant exploration and discussions of the magic system employed in this world. There is a sense that "I might have seen this before" as far the magic is concerned. It entailed both hard and soft aspects with two different types of magic that can be tapped and channelled - one from nature itself and the other being pretty much a gift from the Gods.
The Copper Cat, Sir Sebastian and Lord Frith return, now known as the Black Feather Three, undertaking potentially dangerous quests in return for a reward, preferably monetary.. Their latest adventure brings them to distant cities, nestled within haunted and frozen mountains, to retrieve a stolen artefact of great import. Although I find the worldbuilding to be sufficiently intriguing, the series is sorely in need of a map! This absence felt even more apparent in the sequel as the narrative moved to new locations and I have no clue where these places are relative to one another. In a fantasy world, this detracts from being fully immersed when all I can do is to conjure in my mind a vague image of the world.
I also noted improvements in the characterisation, especially in the case of Frith and Sebastian where we spent more time delving into their thoughts, emotions, conflicts, insecurities and all. Even though I do like her, Wydrin still felt slightly detached to me for the most part – her quips and bravado seeming to hide her true self even from the reader. The author also incorporated cultural and sexual diversity into her characters, with love and acceptance being a key theme.
With plenty of good action scenes and decent pacing, I never found myself bored while reading this book. I do, however, have some minor issues. Aside from my earlier grouse on the absence of a map, I also found a lack of firm footing of which fantasy sub-genre the author is trying to write for this series, so far. It seemed to, more or less, have a dose of everything. Don't get me wrong, it is not necessarily a bad thing, but it unsettled me whenever the tone varies from what I was expecting at times. There are also certain plot devices, particularly around the magic system, which I find to be almost too convenient to help our protagonists along. And this is where the co-mingling of the hard and soft magic aspects appears detrimental to the overall narrative.
Nit-picking aside, I did enjoy reading The Iron Ghost. It is entertaining and well-paced with likeable and interesting characters. With the final instalment to go, let's see what is in store for the Black Feather Three.