There are two things to know about Leah Bobet’s An Inheritance of Ashes. The first is that it is going on my list of potential best books of the year. It’s that good. The other is that you should ignore the genre marketing which has Bobet’s novel listed as YA, I assume because of its sixteen-year-old protagonist. But An Inheritance of Ashes has a deeply adult sensibility, whether in its treatment of war, heroism, family, romance, or trauma, and it would be a shame if it were lost any readers due to labeling (even recognizing that many adult readers do read YA).
An Inheritance of Ashes is set just after the end of the war in the south against the Wicked God and his followers, which included human “irregulars” led by the prophet Asphodel Jones and “Twisted Things,” monstrous creatures whose mere touch can be deadly. The physical setting for the novel is Roadstead Farm, currently being (barely) worked by sixteen-year-old Hallie Hoffmann and her pregnant older sister Marthe, whose husband Thomas marched off to war and hasn’t returned. When a strange veteran named Heron shows up, Marthe and Hallie hire him on to help them prepare for the winter. Unfortunately, Heron is not the only remnant from the war to wash ashore at Roadstead, as soon after his arrival more and more Twisted Things are discovered around the farm, raising the question of whether there is some connection between Heron’s arrival and the monsters’ appearance, as well as whether the death of the Wicked God at the hands of the now-legendary (and missing) hero John Balsam didn’t actually end the war.
On the surface then, the novel seems to be your typical fantasy: dark god and his minions threaten an idyllic pastoral setting while a plucky band of regular folks try to find their inner strength and heroism to resist. You even have a magical weapon — John Balsam’s “knife that cut the heart out of the Wicked God Southward.” But An Inheritance of Ashes is anything but a typical fantasy and while the battle against the Twisted Things drives the plot, really in many ways it is the least important and least compelling story in the novel.
So what does compel then? Well, first of all, family. A brief prologue set eight years earlier gives us a glimpse of a raging, terrifying father who drove his own brother out in anger and spite, terrified his two daughters, and who set the stage for how the two would deal with each other in the ensuing years: a kind of prickly, knife’s-edge relationship with neither able to fully understand or communicate with the other. The things family members do to us and for us is a running theme throughout the novel. One which enters the story as well through Hallie’s neighbors, the Chandlers, whose son Tyler returned home from the war a wounded, haunted young man, one who must fight against his family’s well-intentioned but constraining attempts to make sure he doesn’t “over-exert” himself. The Chandlers also offer up a nicely stark contrast: their large, loving, warm family matched against Marthe and Halle’s much more cold and lonely relationship.
Their father poisoned more than the relationship between his two daughters, though. Complicating their attempts to deal with the influx of Twisted Things is their near utter isolation from the nearby town, partially owing to their father’s prior actions and because after their father’s death the Mayor looked to take the farm from them “for their own good.” Meanwhile, Halle’s trust/intimacy issues, combined with Tyler’s sense of inadequacy, combine to make their first stumbling moves toward a closer relationship fraught with awkwardness and anxiety.
And if the idea of another “YA young love” just made you roll your eyes, you can put them back in your sockets, because this is one of the most respectful and realistic presentation of such that I’ve seen in a while, beginning with their decision to take it slow and see what happens, and Halle’s nicely phrased realization that, “You can say no, I reminded myself. It doesn’t have to mean never… You can say yes, and it won’t mean always.” That’s part of that “adult sensibility” I mentioned above, as is the repeated tag line “I’m not OK” — recognition on their part that any relationship is going to be made harder by the fact that each of them is in some ways a broken individual trying to hold themselves together and maybe, if they’re lucky, find their missing pieces.
Nearly everyone, in fact, is broken in some fashion in An Inheritance of Ashes: Halle, Tyler, Marthe, Heron, and others I won’t name so as to avoid spoilers, but including even our villains, and maybe even the Wicked God itself. This theme is nicely paralleled via the way the world itself is “broken.” First, as we learn (no great spoiler here), the general setting is a post-apocalyptic US, filled with ruins of cities and bridges dating from a time before “the cities fell, since all the machines of the world went dark.” Secondly, it turns out the Twisted Things (again, no big spoiler) are appearing through rips in the fabric between our world and another.
The quest to heal the world marches lockstep with so many individual attempts to heal themselves, sometimes with the help of others but just as often with coming face to face with one’s own harsh realities and with facing as well one’s fears, flaws, assumptions, the ways one’s past need not determine one’s present and future.
There’s so much more I could rave about in An Inheritance of Ashes. The way several aspects simply exist without calling attention to themselves: a relationship between two men, the fact that the most brilliant, most scientifically curious character is a relatively young woman; the diversity of skin color. The frequency with which the plot spins off in unexpected ways, surprising in many small twists and turns while paying only lip service to what would be the usual “big mysteries,” such as what happened to John Balsam. The rippling effects of war and other trauma. The many structural thematic and imagistic parallels. The many small insights into character and family, such as a mother “star [ing] at her children’s backs, all her fussing and mothering snuffed out. The hold it left behind filled slowly with a desolate pain.” The often lovely prose. The author’s treatment of hero-worship and the glorification of war (“They don’t talk about the war because it wasn’t a war like in stories.” “They don’t talk about the war,” Heron corrected, “because we were animals, and we are ashamed.”). And what might be my favorite aspect of the novel — the way Bobet subverts in so many ways the idea of the singular hero, the youthful hero, the small band working on their own in secrecy. It’s a wholly fresh and realistic approach and maybe the largest reason why I found the YA label to be more than a little misleading.
An Inheritance of Ashes isn’t without its occasional miscue. Sometimes Bobet’s similes/metaphors pull the reader out of the text rather than enhancing understanding. Two or three times the parallels might be a little too on the nose or draw to much attention to themselves. But these were mere quibbles in what, as I’ve said, is going on my long list for best book of the year. Rich, sharply drawn, complex characters. A moving portrayal of relationships and trauma. A realistic coming-of-age tale. An Inheritance of Ashes is just a wonderfully told tale all around and highly recommended.