Reposting to include Marion’s new review.
Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham
I have to say, my timing of reading Daniel Abraham’s newest novel, Age of Ash (2022), couldn’t have been better, coming as it did right after I finished the last EXPANSE novel, the series he co-wrote with Ty Franck (as James S.A. Corey). After all, while THE EXPANSE has been my favorite sci-fi series for the past number of years, Abraham was also responsible for two of my favorite fantasy series: THE LONG PRICE QUARTET and THE COIN AND THE DAGGER, so I knew I would be in good hands in terms of assuaging my sorrow at bidding farewell to the Rocinante crew. And I was. That said, fair warning to anyone coming here because of The Expanse TV show. This is not that show set in a fantasy world. Abraham as a fantasy writer is less propulsive, has less action, and doesn’t blow stuff up nearly as often. What is shared between Corey and Abraham, though, is a wonderfully rewarding focus on vivid characterization.
The setting is the ancient city of Kithamar that “for three hundred years and longer has been a free city, independent and proud and ruled by princes of its own rather than any distant king.” The book opens with the funeral of one of those princes (Byrn a Sal) who died — possibly of suspicious circumstances — less than a year after his coronation. We then move back to the day of Byrn a Sal’s coronation and a focus not on the nobility but the lower class of the city as we’re introduced to our two main characters, Alys and Sammish, as they and the rest of their small crew run a “pull” (a pickpocket scheme). Not all goes well, though, and Alys’ older brother, Darro, whom she idolizes, has to rescue her from an angry guard. When Darro is found murdered shortly thereafter, Alys worries it was her actions that led to this death. The combination of grief and guilt lead to some questionable decisions on her part, while Sammish at first watches with her own form of grief at what is happening to someone she loves, and then both end up embroiled in unexpected and differing ways in the city’s politics, as well as with the dark secret at the city’s heart.
Despite opening with a mini-heist scene (the pickpocket scam) and a murder, as noted, this is not an action-filled plot. Instead Age of Ash is a character-driven story that takes the necessary time to build characters that we can care about. It’s also a meditation on and exploration of grief and love in all their complex facets, in the ways we grieve, the ways we love, the different types or phases of either.
The characters are richly realized and complex. It’s agonizing to watch Alys spiral downward even as one fully understands what is driving her further and further from her better self and from her better relationships. Early on, Darro thinks to himself, “He wanted her to be the laughing child he was when he was her age. He wanted the world to corrupt everything, only not her.” And one fears at the moment that this is indeed the foreshadowing it becomes, though one doesn’t know at the time that it will be Darro who, in some ways, initiates that corruption. You want her to pull out of the dive and fear she won’t each time she has a choice. There are multiple references to two selves, two roads, as when she hits a dog with a club: “if Alys felt a flicker of regret it didn’t last. ‘Next time stay out of my way,” she called after it. But she kept watching long enough to reassure herself it wasn’t limping.” Which one she will become — the girl who injures a dog without remorse or the girl who has compassion for the weak and injured — remains an achingly open question for some time.
Similarly, Sammish also has her separate selves, whether they be simultaneous (kept hidden, sometimes even to herself) or serial as, like Alys, she grows away from the girl she is at the start, and these changes, even if positive, are often bittersweet. Other characters are equally fleshed out with complicated motivations, with some revelations changing entirely how the reader responds to them. The character-building in the novel is also one of the best depictions I’ve seen in fantasy of the underclass, which can often be romanticized in fantasy tales. This is a movingly empathetic, compassionate, and clear-eyed look at the lives of those who don’t live in the palaces or merchant houses or who aren’t the stableboy who comes into his true kingship.
Even more moving is the aforementioned portrayal of grief, which arrives in a variety of ways. The grief of a sister for a brother, of a mother for a child, the grief of one old friend for another now gone, the grief of a neighborhood for the passing of an icon. But the main storyline is Alys’ grief for Darro, which utterly overwhelms her, as grief does, literally subsuming her as she tries to become Darro, do what he would do (which also acts as a nice metaphor for another element of Age of Ash). Nor is this grief depicted in simple abstract fashion, or as a sort of logical — someone died so someone feels sad — response. It’s a vivid true-to-life portrayal, as when Alys thinks to herself:
She was losing him. Darro’s face, his voice, the way he held his weight over his feet like he was always on the verge of running. She could remember them, but they didn’t intrude on her the way they had. The grief was in her, but it was weary, and she was weary along with it. And Darro wasn’t there to help her remember.
Here Abraham covers not just the reality of generic grief — the way it changes from sharp pangs to dull ache not because “time heals” but because we lose the details — but he also makes sure to give us the level of detail that makes the loss feel real, concrete, that makes Darro feels alive. It’s a poignant, painful portrayal throughout.
Though this is a story driven by character, the plot is engrossing and just as complicated as the characters that move through it. The big bad is an original, interesting concept and portrayed, as with the other characters, with a sense of fullness, as opposed to just being a prop to create obstacles to overcome or a character who does bad things because they’re, you know, “bad.” The same holds true with the big bad’s allies.
The Age of Ash is a slow cooker of a novel, letting its ingredients simmer and stew so all the fullness of flavor gets released, a rich, savory concoction that lingers well after the first taste. Though it stands well on its own, so much so it could be a standalone, it’s clear with this first in the KITHAMAR TRILOGY that Abraham is on his way to giving us yet another must-read series.
“The question was answered. She understood what was bringing her to the palace. She saw what she had spent a lifetime serving, and the sense of betrayal was deeper than seas or skies…”
I’ve read and enjoyed THE EXPANSE, but before Age of Ash I had never read any of Daniel Abraham’s epic fantasy. (He wrote THE LONG PRICE QUARTET and DAGGER AND COIN series.) Age of Ash, Book One of the KITHAMAR trilogy, kicks off what could be described, in a misleading way, as a standard fantasy struggle for succession, but Abraham is taking a different approach to the epic fantasy structure in this 2022 novel. This unusual direction worked in many places, and didn’t work in others. Overall, though, the story is an engrossing read with a high-stakes puzzle at its core, and a beautifully described background and world.
The story takes place over most of one year in the city-state of Kithamar, which coincides with the short reign of the latest prince of the city, Byrn a Sal. In fact, the book opens with the funeral of Prince a Sal, and they rest of the tale is told as a long flashback starting with his coronation.
Kithamar is always ruled by the same family, although the succession often has to reach out to nieces, nephews and cousins. Still, for at least hundreds of years one family line has reigned. Kithamar is remarkably stable, and for Ash, a young woman who lives in Longhill, the poorest sector of the city, tragically so, since mobility, either upward or lateral, is virtually impossible. The poor stay poor. Ash’s older brother Dorro seems to have come into some money, though, right before his body is fished out the river. Ash is devastated with grief. She seeks out knowledge — she wants to know what happened and who did this. Her loss transmutes, at first, to revenge. As the the months go by, Ash begins to recreate her brother in her own actions, pretending she’s a street tough. Soon, she takes work from the same powerful and wealthy people who were paying Dorro to be their eyes — and their “knife” — in Longhill. Ash enlists her friend Sammish to help her.
The racial component to power and poverty in this city is made clear early. The Inlisc were the original settlers of this land. Later, the Hansch invaded and conquered it. Inlisc are treated differently and in this book at least, any successful Inlisc characters are only successful by comparison.
In the neighborhoods of Palace Hill and Green Hill, Andomaka Chalat, cousin to Byrn a Sal, and her servant Tregarro, discuss a ritual that went wrong, a knife that is missing, and dire consequences to the city if things aren’t set right. Andomaka is part of the Daris Brotherhood, one of the religious orders in a city of many gods. Her loyalty is first and foremost to the continuation of Kithamar, and she is ruthless.
Andomaka’s story and Ash’s will intersect, along with the fortunes of a Bronze Coast woman named Saffa who has come to the city seeking her kidnapped son. Political machinations, magic, schemes and double-crosses ensue. Through all of it, I knew that I was seeing the tip of the iceberg, and the real movers-and-shakers in this world hadn’t been revealed yet. Much more is going on the city of Kithimar than shows on its streets.
Generally, I like the “slow burn,” but it was page 192 of a 400+ page book before the scheme became apparent. Part of the slowness came from prose that, while vivid, seemed repetitive. People in Longhill are poor, and I saw them being poor, over and over. Sammish, who unfurls into a smart, inventive character driving much of the action in the later sections of the book spends most of the first part demonstrating poverty to the reader. While the city is well-described, it’s possible that I saw more of it than I needed to. The pacing seems too slow for a three-book arc. I enjoyed what I was seeing of the world, though, and after page 192 the suspense and tension ground steadily, inexorably, upward.
Ash’s name is in the title, and her character-arc is a good one, but Sammish was the character who grew on me. She began to trust herself and act from her strengths. A big part of her story is how her feelings for the clueless Ash change over the course of the book. Just as Ash finally must face up to what her beloved older brother was really like, Sammish ultimately has to set aside her infatuation and deal with Ash as Ash really is.
Ash is often unlikeable and dishonorable, but she is never less than engaging. Andomaka is a smart woman wielding power, whose vulnerability is simply her loyalty, and her loyal servant Tregarro is just complicated enough as he struggles with his feelings for Andomaka, his own sense of foreboding and his own loyalty.
I’m invested in this story now. The second and third books will follow different characters during the same time period. I look forward to finding out who the other players are, and what happens to the city of Kithamar, as instability looms.
I preordered this one as soon as I knew it existed. Looking forward to the read!
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Another great book from Daniel Abraham. He’s such a great story-teller. It’s a slow-ish story, but it’s very rich with well-defined and relatable characters. I’m very much looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.