King of Ashes by Raymond E. Feist fantasy book reviewsKing of Ashes by Raymond E. Feist fantasy book reviewsKing of Ashes by Raymond E. Feist

Back in the 1980s, like a lot of people, I was eagerly consuming Raymond E. Feist’s RIFTWAR SAGA, which began with Magician: Apprentice and continued onward through a host of novels. I loved Magician, though I have little memory of it, and read the next few books in the series, though eventually I lost track, whether that was due to lack of interest or not, I have no idea. But Feist ended RIFTWAR a few years ago and is now back with a new book — King of Ashes — and series — THE FIREMANE SAGA. And it’s a bit like being in 1980 all over again. Unfortunately, though, not for the right reasons.

In the world of Garn, five kingdoms have lived in peace for two centuries until a betrayal ends with on kingdom destroyed and an entire line of its rulers slaughtered, save for one babe. Baron Daylon Dumach sends the baby off to be raised by the Coalachin, a “hidden” kingdom of assassins, agents, influencers, and the like. He’s to be instructed in all their ways until he comes of age, when he is supposed returned to the Baron. This all occurs in the prologue, and then we jump to Hatu — the babe now grown into his late teens, training with his friends Hava and Donte. Meanwhile, another young orphan, Declan, has just finished his masterwork as a smith and must make his way in this new, far less peaceful and more dangerous world. Eventually, their stories become intertwined.

So that 1980s déjà vu? It comes from King of Ashes feeling just too familiar. The setting is your basic feudal fantasy setting and we get the castles/citadels, the small towns, the inn, the market, the mercenaries, etc. We’ve got the long-lost heir to a kingdom hidden away unaware of his lineage. We’ve got the secret society of criminals, assassins, networked agents. The good-natured innocent smith who has a good heart but can be steely when needed. A Church seeking more power. Secret sects and guardians. And it’s all told in linear fashion, with two alternating plot strands. Had you told me this was written 30 years ago, I wouldn’t have questioned it.

OK, so the basics are overly familiar. But I’ve often said it isn’t so much if one avoids the tropes but how one works with them. And “workmanlike” is how I’d describe their usage here. Nothing surprises. The plot is predictable, the world generic. The characterization is as well, and surprisingly thin for a book that spends so much in time in characters’ heads. The two main characters are also a little too “special” — with heightened awareness or abilities clicking in just as needed, at the most opportune of times (and while Hatu’s is somewhat explained, I’m still not clear on what’s going on with Declan). There’s also an over-reliance on coincidence that feels contrived at times, and at least one pivotal point that relies on several characters being implausibly oblivious.

Stylistically, the prose itself is smooth and fluid, no surprise from someone who has been writing so long. But it’s also oddly repetitive in places (so much so that that it reminded me of what you sometimes get when someone stitches together a bunch of independent stories into a narrative and fails to edit out all the similar exposition), especially with regard to much of Hatu’s interior monologues regarding Hava. Somewhat similarly, it’s also strangely non-selective in parts, where sometimes the detail seems too much for the payoff and sometimes we jump over things too quickly.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say King of Ashes is a bad book. The characters are likable enough, and one has a mild interest in what will happen to them, though one can guess a lot of it. But it doesn’t add anything to the genre, there’s nothing that surprises, there’s nothing that is memorable or that excites. “Flatly familiar” is probably the best way I can describe it. I will say the latter part does offer up a bit of hope, does hint that maybe the story has the potential to break out of its mundanity. At least enough so that while I can’t say I’m eager or excited to pick up the sequel, I’ll give it a shot. But right now, I’d say hold off on this one until we see if it improves.

Published May 8, 2018. The first volume in legendary master and New York Times bestselling author Raymond E. Feist’s epic heroic fantasy series, The Firemane Saga—an electrifying tale of two young men whose choices will determine a world’s destiny. For centuries, the five greatest kingdoms of North and South Tembria, twin continents on the world of Garn, have coexisted in peace. But the balance of power is destroyed when four of the kingdoms violate an ancient covenant and betray the fifth: Ithrace, the Kingdom of Flames, ruled by Steveren Langene, known as “the Firemane” for his brilliant red hair. As war engulfs the world, Ithrace is destroyed and the Greater Realms of Tembria are thrust into a dangerous struggle for supremacy. As a Free Lord, Baron Daylon Dumarch owes allegiance to no king. When an abandoned infant is found hidden in Daylon’s pavilion, he realizes that the child must be the missing heir of the slain Steveren. The boy is valuable—and vulnerable. A cunning and patient man, Daylon decides to keep the baby’s existence secret, and sends him to be raised on the Island of Coaltachin, home of the so-called Kingdom of Night, where the powerful and lethal Nocusara, the “Hidden Warriors,” legendary assassins and spies, are trained. Years later, another orphan of mysterious provenance, a young man named Declan, earns his Masters rank as a weapons smith. Blessed with intelligence and skill, he unlocks the secret to forging King’s Steel, the apex of a weapon maker’s trade known by very few. Yet this precious knowledge is also deadly, and Declan is forced to leave his home to safeguard his life. Landing in Lord Daylon’s provinces, he hopes to start anew. Soon, the two young men—an unknowing rightful heir to a throne and a brilliantly talented young swordsmith—will discover that their fates, and that of Garn, are entwined. The legendary, long-ago War of Betrayal has never truly ended . . . and they must discover the secret of who truly threatens their world.


  • Bill Capossere

    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.