Age of Ash: The first in yet another must-read series

Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsAge of Ash by Daniel Abraham

Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsI 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.

Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe 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:Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews

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.

Published in February 2022. From New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed author Daniel Abraham, co-author of The Expanse, comes a monumental epic fantasy trilogy that unfolds within the walls of a single great city, over the course of one tumultuous year, where every story matters, and the fate of the city is woven from them all. Kithamar is a center of trade and wealth, an ancient city with a long, bloody history where countless thousands live and their stories unfold. This is Alys’s. When her brother is murdered, a petty thief from the slums of Longhill sets out to discover who killed him and why.  But the more she discovers about him, the more she learns about herself, and the truths she finds are more dangerous than knives. Swept up in an intrigue as deep as the roots of Kithamar, where the secrets of the lowest born can sometimes topple thrones, the story Alys chooses will have the power to change everything.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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3 comments

  1. I preordered this one as soon as I knew it existed. Looking forward to the read!

  2. Let us know what you thought!

  3. Yagiz /

    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.

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