Age of Ash is an ambitious new series starter that ultimately fell a little short for me…
Book: Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham
Publication date: 17th February 2022
Ownership: Proof copy sent free of charge by Orbit Books. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: violence, injury, murder and death; death of children and siblings (grieving family members is a major theme); fire/arson; mentions of plague.
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.
The three novels of the Kithamar Trilogy take place in the same year, but are told from different characters’ perspectives. Their stories will overlap and intertwine, and the full truth, if there is such a thing, will be understood by following each thread…
I know there’s been a lot of excitement for this one, mostly because of the author’s huge success as co-writer of The Expanse series, but having never seen or read anything of his earlier work, I went into this without much hype… which is probably a good thing, because I still ended up underwhelmed. A series starter, this is supposed to be the beginning of a wide, intricate tapestry of stories that all take place in the same city in the same timeframe – but I think it’s a big ask to expect readers to wait a few books until it all comes together to spot the genius, when each individual book may not in itself be that ambitious or groundbreaking.
This review is going to end up toeing the line of damning with faint praise, because Age of Ash is just solidly okay. It’s really one of the most generic low-magic city fantasies I’ve ever read, from its heroine, a plucky young thief who gets caught up in a job far bigger than she imagined, to its sinister-yet-affable priests who are keeping secrets that underpin the very workings of the city. There was no point in this book where I thought ‘wow, that was unexpected’ – I don’t necessarily need a plot as twisty and rug-pulling as The Ruin of Kings in every fantasy book, but I would have just liked something unique to set this apart. A lot of the time, I was a little bit bored.
That isn’t to say it’s not well-written, because it is. The city feels vivid as a setting, and there’s a meticulous attention paid to two things: grief, and the daily grind of poverty. There are some very well-put musings on the nature of both, but I think the trouble is that they don’t really feel like naturally-occuring parts of the characters, but more like pithy philosophising from the author. I should have been right there emotionally wrapped up with Alys, but somehow I felt like I was on the outside looking in; I wanted to feel her emotions along with her, but I just felt flat. The language is lovely, and the points are valid, but something is missing in the connections. The plot, too, isn’t really compelling enough to hold up how very slow and observant the narrative feels; it’s about halfway through that things actually start happening, and even then, it’s still very small-scale and day-to-day. I like slice-of-life fantasy, but not when I’ve been promised plot like this!
I will say that appreciated the largely female cast and how they were all handled; occasionally some of the characters felt a little samey, but none of them suffered from the general fantasy pitfalls of misogyny. There are a few offhand mentions of prostitution as a practical part of life in Longhill, but no sexual violence, and the girls are never refused jobs on account of their gender, plus in the glimpses we see of the upper classes, being a woman doesn’t seem to get in the way of inheritance or otherwise holding power. The general handling of queerness could have been a little bit more inclusive; one of the main characters is sapphic, and it’s not a problem for her, but it’s also just sort of… ignored? She never expresses her feelings to anyone, nor do we never see any other characters with same-sex attraction to compare it to or know how she would be received in the world at large. There are also no attempts to explore outside the gender binary, even though there is opportunity to (I can’t really say much without spoiling it, but there’s a character whose identity is not fixed to their own body; their only comment on it is that they have been in male and female forms, nothing more). It’s not the focus of the work, sure, but it just felt like a rather superficial attempt, and honestly these days I expect more.
I think ultimately, that actually sums up my feelings about Age of Ash quite nicely – it’s solid, decent fantasy, but personally, I just expect a little bit more. I do think fans of slower-paced fantasy that tends towards the bleaker, more realistic end of life would enjoy it more than me! I might read future books in this series if I spot them in the library, to see if the weaving-in of future stories is as genius as the blurb exclaims, but on its own, this is okay, but a bit forgettable. If you’re after something with a plucky thief uncovering secrets in a wonderfully complex and textured city, I’d recommend picking up The Gutter Prayer for something truly original! Three out of five cats.