This review is based on an eARC (Advance Reading Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Age of Ash will be released February 15, 2022.
The most recent addition to my all-time top five list was Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, which tells a series of intimate, personal stories that echo through the decades until the overarching narrative has reached epic, world-altering stakes. It builds slowly, with a tight focus on characters that feel about as real as you can find in the genre, ultimately turning into something grand without losing a bit of the intimacy. So when I saw that Abraham was planning another fantasy series, I literally signed up for NetGalley for the sole purpose of attempting to acquire an ARC of Age of Ash. Suffice to say, I was excited about this one.
Age of Ash takes place in the city of Kithamar, which will serve as the setting of the entire Kithamar Trilogy, with the opener focusing in particular on the city’s poorest districts. The primary perspective characters are Alys and Sammish, a pair of women just coming into adulthood who survive on a series of odd jobs—some legal and some less so. But the death of her brother sends Alys seeking understanding, or revenge, or both, or even something more, and it quickly sees her entangled in the magic at the heart of the city’s power structure.
When returning to the author of a favorite series, it’s hard not to make comparisons (fair or not), and Age of Ash certainly carries forward several of the hallmarks of Abraham’s writing that I’d seen in The Long Price Quartet. The prose is a pleasure to read, but not in a way that lends itself to steady reading, and while I never found myself bored, I was also unable to progress as quickly as I’d expect in a novel of that length. In another familiar theme, the story ultimately involves plots that could shake kingdoms, yet it reads as an intimate tale of ordinary people whose lives just happen to touch on matters of gods or kings. That tight focus on perspectives outside the power structure leaves odd holes in the overarching narrative—holes that I believe are meant to be filled in by the sequels. We see a robust plot arc with a satisfying conclusion, but we also only see certain pieces of it, and so there are some causes or consequences that entirely escape our attention in the opening book.
As I expected, the character work is excellent. I don’t know of an author writing today who does a better job at painting sympathetic portraits of friends pushed to the opposite side of a conflict. Age of Ash doesn’t have quite the moral uncertainty of many of the Long Price books, but even when a major character is clearly in the wrong, their path to wrongness is so deliberate, with every step so well-supported, that they can act awfully while still garnering the reader’s sympathy.
Unfortunately, the lack of moral uncertainty also creates a story where there don’t seem to be many different ways for the narrative to progress after the broad outlines of plot come into focus. The storytelling doesn’t falter for a minute, and I’ve long argued that having a predictable ending doesn’t make for a bad story unless a lot else goes wrong. But, while the character work, the prose, and a narrative that expertly weaves small moments into big ones earns Age of Ash very high marks, the ending doesn’t take that next step that moves a book from the favorites of the year list to the all-time favorites list. Throw in one irksome coincidence to get the plot going in the first place, and Age of Ash doesn’t exceed excellent. Of course, excellent is excellent–it will likely be among my favorites of the year, and I am extremely curious to see how the sequel will maintain narrative tension while filling in the gaps of a tale whose resolution seems to be in significant part already written. But through the opening novel alone, Kithamar doesn’t hit the lofty heights of Abraham’s existing standard-bearer.
Recommended if you like: deliberately-paced epics with quality prose and tight character focus.
Can I use it for Bingo? It certainly has an argument for hard mode on the Revenge-Seeking Character square. It also has an X of Y title.
Overall rating: 18 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads.