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Literature / The Winnowing Flame

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The Winnowing Flame is a trilogy of novels written by Jennifer Williams: The Ninth Rain, The Bitter Twins, and The Poison Song.

The story is set in the world of Sarn - a world with a long history of conflict against an extraterrestrial foe, the Jure'lia (or "worm people"), who descended from the skies in their flying Behemoths to wage war against the people of Sarn, killing anything and anyone they come across before coating the land in a poisonous layer of varnish. Only the Eborans, blessed by the great tree Ygseril, were able to lead the defense of Sarn, fighting alongside mythical war beasts birthed from pods that fell from Ygseril's boughs in a "Rain". But, at the end of the Eighth Rain, the Jure'lia vanished, and the tree-father's leaves withered away as it died, leaving the people of Ebora both without the unique sap that prolonged their agelessness and without the war beasts.


Now, the land of Sarn is largely peaceful, albeit scarred by the centuries of war with the worm people - Behemoth wreckages lie abandoned throughout the lands, haunted by bizarre creatures known as "parasite spirits", and numerous areas of the world grow Wild and dangerous due to the poison of the Jure'lia seeping deep into the land. After seeing a parasite spirit in the Wild, a wealthy vintner named Lady Vincenza "Vintage" de Grazon decides to leave her home and vineyards to do what few have done before - research and study the remnants and relics of the Jure'lia left scattered throughout Sarn. Along the way, she recruits Tormalin the Oathless, an Eboran swordsman who abandoned his dying homeland, and the fell-witch Noon, who managed to escape the Winnowry, where women of Sarn are imprisoned simply for the crime of being born fell-witches.


The three of them set out on a trek through the Wilds, studying the landscape and narrowly avoiding the clutches of the Winnowry agent sent to recapture Noon. Meanwhile, in Ebora, Tormalin's sister, Hestillion, senses an ancient presence within the corpse of Ygseril, and hatches a plot to revive the long-dead root-mother no matter the cost...

This series describes examples of:

  • The Atoner: Hestillion survives the events of the series, but it's implied that she will spend the rest of her long life making up for the irreperable damage she caused to Sarn and its people.
  • Beta Couple: Bern and Aldasair, while not without their difficulties, have a much more successful and stable relationship than the series' primary pairing: Tormalin and Noon.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Mother Cressin of the Winnowry cuts her own throat rather than be destroyed by Noon's winnowfire.
  • Big Bad: The Jure'lia queen, imprisoned within Ygseril's roots until she is unwittingly freed by the protagonists, at which point she revives the worm people to lay waste to Sarn once again.
    • The Dragon: Hestillion.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Arnia, in The Bitter Twins.
  • Bittersweet Ending: By the end of The Poison Song, the Jure'lia are destroyed for good and Sarn is at peace at long last, but not without cost. All of Jarlsbad, and countless other settlements through Sarn, have been destroyed during the Ninth Rain, and the land is still covered with the worm people's varnish, poisoning it for generations to come. Noon is dead, having destroyed herself along with the Jure'lia, and all of her friends and loved ones feel her loss acutely - particularly Tormalin. However, the trilogy ends on an ultimately positive note: She Who Laughs restores Ygseril enough for it to produce its healing sap once again, thereby curing Ebora of the crimson flux at last. Furthermore, she decides to devote herself to removing the varnish from the land with her fire, thereby cleansing Sarn of the Jure'lia once and for all.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality:
    • The Aborans, creators of Ygseril, are an alien race of beings who treat races they deem "lesser" as little more than guinea pigs to experiment on. It was one such experiment that created the Eborans.
    • She Who Laughs, the self-proclaimed "goddess" and source of winnowfire. She witnesses one of the girls she blessed with her power - Noon - absorb the life energies of an entire clan of people before burning them all in a massive explosion of winnowfire and, rather than view the incident as a tragedy, is delighted and impressed that finally somebody was able to tap into the true power of winnowfire. She kidnaps Noon in The Poison Song and forces her to relive the incident (which Noon had understandably repressed completely) with the intention of furthering Noon's knowledge of winnowfire, and doesn't comprehend why Noon might be upset at remembering how she slaughtered her entire clan.
  • Body Horror:
    • The fate of anyone unfortunate enough to fall afoul of the Jure'lia burrowers - tiny insects that crawl inside their victims through whatever orifice they can find (although they usually dig through the eyeballs), and hollow out the body from the inside, turning the lifeless husk into a drone that serves the worm people.
    • The symptoms of the crimson flux include having one's skin turn white and chalky before it cracks open and oozes the red fluid that gives the disease its name. It should be noted that Eborans (the only people affected by the crimson flux) have black blood - the red fluid that leaks from their sores is actually a sort of pus.
    • Parasite spirits can turn people inside out simply by touching them - which they frequently do.
  • Break the Haughty: This happens to Tormalin in each book.
    • In The Ninth Rain, he is brutally scarred and almost killed when Noon unleashes a blast of super-powered winnowfire, and he spends a great deal of time in a nigh-comatose state as he recovers.
    • In The Bitter Twins, he discovers that his race, the Eborans, are little more than an experiment created by a higher race of aliens.
    • And in The Poison Song, he contracts the crimson flux, dooming him to a slow, painful death. Worse still, he mistakenly believes that Noon has died, and he sinks into a depressive state.
  • Breath Weapon: The favoured method of attack for many of the Eboran war beasts - particularly the dragons, naturally enough.
    • Vostok has the typical fiery dragon's breath, but Celaphon (another dragon) expels electricity from his mouth instead. It's not clear if Celaphon is abnormal in this aspect due to being twisted by the Jure'lia growth fluid or if he was born with the ability.
    • Helcate eventually learns how to spid burning acid from his mouth.
    • Windfall in The Poison Song breathes ice.
  • Cast from Hit Points: Fell-witches are capable of generating magical fire from their hands, but since energy can't be created from nothing, they first have to absorb life energy from touching a living being (plant or animal). Even without using their winnowfire, fell-witches can effectively incapacitate or even kill a person simply by touching them.
  • Chekhov's Skill: The method by which Noon killed her entire clan (by draining their life energy through their connections instead of through physical touch), which she is forced to relearn by She Who Laughs, is the method she uses to destroy the Jure'lia once and for all.
  • Dark Fantasy: Subverted, as one might be forgiven at a first glance for thinking that The Winnowing Flame is a dark fantasy series, given the setting of a poisoned world still recovering from centuries of war - first against alien invaders and then later against a race of blood-drinking warriors - haunted by ghosts that turn people inside out, and where vast areas of land are too dangerous to travel through without getting mauled by twisted monsters. But ultimately, the story is one of how love and the bonds people share can overcome even the greatest foe. The heroes are heroic with a few shades of grey, and all but the most out-and-out Eldritch Abomination villains are capable of redemption, and even the Jure'lia ultimately only want to continue the survival of their race - they only truly turn omnicidal once their eggs are destroyed and any chance of a future for their race is obliterated. Ultimately, the optimistic tone of the series renders it closer to Heroic Fantasy.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Jure'lia queen - a being made up of a strange black fluid that (usually) shapes itself into a vaguely-humanoid form, complete with a mask for a face. The form she takes after being destroyed by Noon and Vostok in The Poison Song is this trope to the letter - absorbing countless Jure'lia into herself and forming a seething black mass that screams with a thousand mouths and carries itself on a hundred legs and none. Just looking at the queen in this form is enough to terrify almost anyone.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Hestillion is introduced in the very first chapter of the series luring a young human boy to the chamber of Ygseril, where she slaughters him and lets his blood flow over the roots in a vain attempt to revive the tree-father. This demonstrates first her manipulative ways and second her devotion to Ygseril and its revival.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Bern manages to completely destabilise the Jure'lia and put them out of commission completely for several months just by accessing one of their crystals (which holds the memories of their race) and replacing it with a memory of his own - the first time he ever met Aldasair, the man he loves. The Jure'lia queen is completely baffled by the strength this memory holds, and later kidnaps Bern and tortures him to try and determine what gives his memories power. Ultimately, she is unable to understand what love and the bonds between people are, and the only lesson she learns from plumbing the depths of Bern's memories is the nature of Revenge.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Hestillion and Celaphon, in The Bitter Twins. Although it's debatable whether Hestillion was even a "face" in the first place.
    • Nanthema, also in The Bitter Twins.
  • Fluffy the Terrible: Hestillion names her war beast "Celaphon", after one of her favourite flowers. Said war beast is later fed Jure'lia growth fluid that causes him to grow abnormally large and vicious.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Hestillion and the protagonists' attempt to revive Ygseril succeeds, but also ends up releasing the queen of the Jure'lia who had been imprisoned within its roots.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Hestillion and Celaphon, in The Poison Song.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Noon wipes out the Jure'lia with the largest blast of winnowfire ever generated, but dies in the process.
  • Hive Mind: The hive mind of the Jure'lia is explicitly compared to a spider's web, with the queen at the centre, and anyone connected to that web can experience the thoughts and feelings of anyone else also connected. Hestillion and Celaphon are willingly joined to the hive mind, while Bern is joined by force.
  • Insectoid Aliens: The Jure'lia, whose ranks are made up of spiders, beetles, giant maggots, and almost any other creepy-crawly one could care to name.
  • MacGuffin: Played With in the case of the amber tablets, which are sought after by the protagonists in The Bitter Twins. Vintage believes the information stored in the tablets can be used to help the new war beasts remember their past lives, making them more capable of fighting the Jure'lia. While Tor and Noon do end up retrieving the tablets, and the information within does prove to be valuable (particularly much later in The Poison Song, when Tor manages to figure out where the Jure'lia are hiding out using details hidden in the tablets), Vintage points out that what the war beasts and their riders really needed was to be united by their bonds, which serves them far better in battle than anything the tablets could have taught them.
  • One-Winged Angel: After being destroyed by Noon and Vostok in The Poison Song, the queen of the Jure'lia reforms herself from the bodies of her subjects, and keeps going - absorbing more and more of them into her until she becomes a full-blown Eldritch Abomination and marches towards Ebora, swearing revenge for the destruction of her eggs.
  • Organic Technology: The Jure'lia Behemoths are both spaceship and giant insect rolled into one.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: The Eborans are a race of red-eyed, ethereally beautiful humanoid beings who gain nourishment (and agelessness) by drinking the blood of humans. However, they originally drank the sap of their tree-father, Ygseril - the source of their long lives, and the discovery that human blood produced a similar effect only came about by accident after the great tree died. The discovery did, however, lead to a savage massacre of humans by the Eborans in their desperation to hold onto their youth. These "Carrion Wars" only ended once the Eborans realised that consuming too much human blood caused a terminal disease called the crimson flux to ravage their bodies, wiping out most of their race.
  • Physical God: She Who Laughs, the source of all winnowfire. She blesses those women whom she deems to be the strongest with her power, and manifests herself through the bodies of her worshippers, who allow themselves to be given to her on their deathbeds.
  • Playing with Fire: The ability of all fell-witches of Sarn - sapping a living being's energy, taking it into themselves, and releasing it as a magical fire.
  • Pokémon Speak: Helcate, with one exception: "Eri..."
  • Prolonged Prologue: The Ninth Rain has three seperate prologues - respectively set 200 years, 50 years, and 5 years before the story begins. Although the latter two are labelled "Chapter 1" and "Chapter 2", it's not until Chapter 3 that we reach the present day and the actual story begins.
  • Resurrective Immortality: The Jure'lia queen is the Jure'lia, and thus cannot be destroyed unless every last one of the worm people is wiped out. Her form is destroyed in The Poison Song, only to reform a short time later using the bodies of lesser Jure'lia.
  • The Reveal: At least one in every book - each one with massive ramifications for the setting and the events to come:
    • The Ninth Rain: Ygseril was keeping the Jure'lia queen sealed away, and reviving it only allows her to be freed. Also, the parasite spirits are the souls of the Eboran war beasts, who couldn't return to Ygseril after the Eighth Rain as they did at the end of every other Rain since Ygseril had died.
    • The Bitter Twins: Ygseril was an experiment created by a race of alien beings known as the Aborans, and the Eborans are just humans who were mutated upon drinking from Ygserils' sap.
    • The Poison Song: The spirit who powered the Aboran's vessel before abandoning them on Origin is She Who Laughs, the source of all winnowfire.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: Micanal the Clearsighted was an Eboran artist who famous led a great expedition across the Boundless Sea in search of an island he called "Origin", so believed to be the source of the seed that had germinated into Ygseril, tree-father and root-mother of Ebora. And he was correct, but not in the way he had expected: what he found, rather than another tree-god, was the crashed spaceship of the alien race who had planted Ygseril's seed - just one of many they had planted throughout the universe as experiments. The revelation that the supposedly high-and-mighty race of Eborans were merely an (unsuccessful) experiment by a race of extraterrestrials was enough to totally disillusion Micanal, and he spent the rest of his days growing old on the island, haunted by his failure to save Ebora.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: The Jure'lia queen vows revenge against Ebora after the protagonists destroy her eggs, and any hope of a future for her people with them. She transforms into a massive beast and rampages across Sarn to destroy Ebora, leaving a trail of mindless destruction in her wake.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Eri, who is killed off in the same book he is introduced.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: The reason why Ygseril seemingly perished at the end of the Eighth Rain was because it captured the Jure'lia queen and imprisoned her within its roots - essentially holding her in a stalemate while the tree withered away. Hestillion makes contact with the queen while dreamwalking into the tree's depths, mistakenly believing her to be the voice of Ygseril, and leads the efforts to resurrect the dead god, which only ends up freeing the trapped queen and accidentally reviving the Jure'lia.
  • Second Love: Chenlo is this for Vintage, after Vintage's first love - Nanthema - betrays and abandons her.
  • Then Let Me Be Evil: Rather tragically Played With in the case of Hestillion, who truly did want to revive Ygseril and restore Ebora to how it used to be. Instead, she was tricked into unleashing the Jure'lia and dooming the world to destruction, and is even taken away by the queen and held captive. By the time Hestillion is able to reunite with her once-allies, she believes she is too far gone and mistrusted by them to rejoin them, and so decides to ally fully with the Jure'lia. The tragic part is that none of the protagonists ever believed she was their enemy, and in truth she would have been more than welcomed back to Ebora had she returned. Her and Celaphon's murder of Eri, however, pushes her over the Moral Event Horizon in the eyes of the protagonists, solidifying her as a villain once and for all.
  • Time Abyss:
    • The Jure'lia queen - the centre of the worm people's hive mind, is as old as the Jure'lia themselves. When Noon absorbs her life energy at the end of The Poison Song, she catches a brief glimpse at the magnitude of the queen's lifespan, and it is too much for her human mind to fully comprehend.
    • She Who Laughs - an ageless spirit of pure energy who is the source of all winnowfire. She propelled the Aboran's Seed Carrier through the cosmos for untold aeons, before abandoning them when they came to Sarn and styling herself as a goddess instead.
  • Vestigial Empire: Ebora in the time the story begins has long since passed its prime, as their root-mother no longer lives and most of its people are dead or dying of the crimson flux. Much description is given in The Ninth Rain of Hestillion wandering the great halls of the Eboran palace, now empty and lifeless and filled with dust.]]
  • World Tree: Ygseril - root-mother and tree-father of Ebora, and the source of the sap that gave its people long lives of near-endless youth. Ygseril is the centre of Ebora, both literally and metaphorically, and its death spelled the end of the once-great nation. Ygseril's seed was planted by a space-faring race known as the Aborans, who traversed the stars in a vessel called the Seed Carrier and travelled to numerous worlds, planting similar seeds in each one.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: The crimson flux that plagues Ebora can only be cured by Ygseril's sap, which is no longer possible to obtain after the tree-father's death. Thus, any Eboran who contracts the flux is doomed to spend the rest of their days growing steadily more ill, until they are confined to their beds and inevitably waste away. Tor is afflicted by the crimson flux come The Poison Song, and thus spends most of the final book knowing that a painful death is all that awaits him. However, it's eventually subverted, as Ygseril is revived enough at the story's end to provide its healing sap once again, curing all Eborans (including Tor) afflicted with the flux.

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