Fiction Reviews

Age of Ash

(2022) Daniel Abraham, Orbit, £18.99, hrdbk, 435pp, ISBN 978-0-356-51542-7


Fresh from his completion as the co-writer of The Expanse science fiction series, we find Daniel returning to fantasy.

Age of Ash is a Fantasy novel that uses the setting of a major sprawling city named Kithamar and the people living there. Like many recent novels of this type, the focus is not so much on the exalted royalty or the privileged elite but instead the low-lifes, a story of petty theft and poverty in the main, rather than a story that deals more uplifting qualities such as honour and valour. Although the book begins with a royal funeral, it goes back an earlier time to show how we get to that point.

Throughout we get the idea that Kithamar is a big city (and the maps at the front suggest this too.) Clearly, there is much to describe and much going on in this sprawling urban area, but Daniel keeps the focus tight by mainly concentrating on Alys, a young thief living hand to mouth in the poorest areas of the city. When Alys’s older brother Darro is killed, which may have been Alys’s fault, she goes on a hunt determined to find the cause and the killer. This leads to her becoming a gangster-like adversary on the streets of Kithamar. With her friend Sammish, Alys searches the streets looking for answers.

However Darro’s death may be only one death amongst others in a power struggle, involving the cousin of the recently-enthroned Byrn a Sal. Arcane practices mean that this struggle seems to involve Darrro's silver knife.

In terms of the bigger picture, what Alys has got herself involved in by accident is a clandestine war between opposing political factions that in turn are associating with certain gods and goddesses. An attempt to usurp the prince and create a change in power may be being covertly nurtured.

Where does this one score?

The setting is impressively vivid and the descriptions of the city as we progress through Autumn to Winter and then Spring create something that is almost a character in itself. Admittedly, for all of the beauty created by the change in the seasons (and the weather!) much of the book shows us that Kithamar is often not very pleasant – most of the colourful descriptions of the city concentrate most on the depravation and squalor rather than the baroque lifestyle of the rich and famous.

Where Daniel scores as per usual is his characterisation, and this is perhaps the book’s strength. In particular, Alys and her friend Sammish show clearly what it is like to struggle, and what the harsh lifestyle of living in poverty has done to many of Kithamar’s people. Alys finds that in order to discover what happened to Darro she has to become like he was, with a brutal gangster-like presence. This, of course, contrasts with the opulence of the wealthier groups, although brutal yet covert assassination is still part of the political game.

On the downside, I felt that less strongly written was the role of those involved on the political side of the novel. Whilst such imperial shenanigans are clearly an important part of the plot, and I suspect something that will become more important in later novels, it is not until the last part of the book that those elements are explained, and even then they feel less strong than those scenes in the grubby end of the city.

I also felt that the pace of the story was variable. Whilst there is undeniably progression through the story to the quite exciting (yet a cliff-hanger) conclusion, I must say that there were points in the middle where not a lot seemed to be happening and the pace became slower, to the point where I began to lose interest. There are points where we get exposition dumped into the plot, in that James-Bond-villain kind of way. This lower-key progression of plot holds pretty much through the whole book. If you come looking for big epic battles, you will be disappointed: this is not that sort of Fantasy novel.

One last point – as the first of a series, you should know that the ending leaves elements unresolved presumably to be examined in later novels.

For all of my minor issues, it must be said that Age of Ash is different to Abraham’s other Fantasy series such as The Long Price Quartet and the Dagger and the Coin novels. Looking at Age of Ash on its own merits, it is a very good example of one of those fantasies that focus on the unpleasantness behind the gleaming facades of a sprawling city. Whilst it may not be quite as violent or as unpleasant as, say, Joe Abercrombie’s books, the overriding impression at the end is that Kithamar, and the people within it, is a complex tapestry of life – even if it is not a place you want to hang around too long in.

Mark Yon


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