Fantasy as a genre is incredibly varied, so much so that it is more accurate to say that fantasy has expanded well beyond a simple genre into a overarching category of fiction. Fantasy can be combined with any other genre in existence seamlessly, and in fact often is. Similar to science-fiction, calling something fantasy tells a reader very little about what to expect. To help readers understand what they’re getting into, it is becoming more common to separate works of fantasy into two general categories: high fantasy and low fantasy. High fantasy is the more traditional approach, with magic being very common within the setting and multiple fantastical creatures. Low fantasy shifts that focus. Magic may exist, but it is either rare or not understood. The main characters are commoners rather than nobles or chosen ones. By shifting the focus down, low fantasy can appear gritter or more “realistic” in some ways, while drastically changing what is important to the story from high fantasy.
Daniel Abraham is one half of the writing duo that makes up James S. A. Corey, the author or the much-loved science-fiction series The Expanse, along with Ty Franck. With nine novels, several novellas and short stories, and a critical acclaimed television adaptation, The Expanse was a tour de force. However, Abraham is an extremely accomplished and versatile writer in his own right, across varying media, proving that his imagination really knows no bounds. Before joining Franck as James S. A. Corey, Abraham worked on two separate fantasy series. While working on The Expanse novels, Abraham somehow managed to find the time to work on yet another fantasy series on his own. He also wrote several comic books, some among the Game of Thrones universe. Within the television world, Abraham not only served as one of the produces on The Expanse series, but also wrote several scripts for the show. Age of Ash is Abraham’s first post-Expanse novel, and a return to fantasy form after a science-fiction interlude.
Age of Ash takes place in the city of Kithamar, a sprawling late medieval-inspired metropolis containing people from all walks of life and situations. Split into separate districts, Kithamar has found a careful balance under the watchful eyes of its ruling princes. Although they use the title prince, a person of any gender can serve into the role. A large aspect of Age of Ash is the world-building, setting up Kithamar as a living, breathing city and drawing readers in. We spend time on it’s streets, learning the customs and terminology, and avoiding the river, because as all Kithamar citizens understand, the river is hungry. It is not a perfect city, however. There is still tension. Rather than re-using the rote and overused discrimination based on race, gender, or sexuality, Abraham pulls inspiration from the The Expanse and focuses on class and wealth. While Kithamar has no issue with same-sex marriage or mingling of different ethnicities, a lower-class person from the Longhill district is not exactly welcome in the regal Green Hill. In keeping with the low fantasy focus, magic exists only among the rich and powerful. Your average citizen in Kithamar likely does not believe in its existence, let alone experienced it firsthand. The residents are also solely human, although that does not preclude future books from introducing other species.
Age of Ash follows two main characters, with each chapter told from the close third-person point-of-view of one of them, with brief interludes into other characters, both major and minor. As the book progresses and the plot escalates, the chapters begin to include multiple character POV’s, separated by breaks in the narrative. When the story begins, we are introduced to Alys, a young woman in her late teenage years living in Longhill trying to make a living like many others of Longhill do; by travelling to richer parts of the city with a crew and pickpocketing people who can afford it. Along with her is Sammish, another young thief, who undergoes a tremendous transformation over the course of the book. At first, Age of Ash leads readers to believe that Alys is the sole main character, with everyone filling a supporting role. She is young, a little headstrong, and somewhat naïve at the start. However, this all begins to change once the plot really starts moving and her brother, Darro, is murdered. Alys spends much of the book falling deeper and deeper into grief, showing her cracks and fragility. Meanwhile, Sammish begins her character arc somewhat of a non-entity. So much so that even people on the street fail to notice her, ironically making her essential to the crew’s thefts. She progressively comes into her own, finding a stronger will than anyone would have thought, and easily becoming a reader favorite of the story.
While Alys and Sammish are the story’s main heroes, along with a few other minor characters, the villains are a little more opaque in Age of Ash. They are both many, and few and far between. Part of that comes down to how Abraham presents the villainous presence in the story. Rather than a clear case of good versus evil, Kithamar is a city of many factions competing for power. Their goals are not necessarily good or bad for the city, but they re difference. On side, there is a quasi-religious order led by Andomaka, a relative of the dead prince. Early in the story, Alys comes into contact with Andomaka, picking up work from where her brother left off, and Andomaka claims to be working for the benefit of the city. However, her methods and goals make it very clear she is playing another game. Against her is a shadowy faction who does not enter into the light, and whose goals are mostly unknown. However, their presence and influence are felt throughout, as it is their actions which kickstart the plot of the novel. These various factions are not truly villains in the strictest sense, but they do serve and antagonists in a way. This complication in the story makes for an intriguing read as Alys is drawn father and farther in by Andomaka, all the while Sammish tries to discover what is really going on in Kithamar.
Aside from the actual plot of Age of Ash, the theme of the story has to do with the idea of connection. The connection between people, between people and their home, and between people and power. From the very start, Alys defines herself by her connection to her older brother Darro. She looks up to him as the perfect example for her own life and, once he dies, she holds on even tighter to that connection. While that connection was born from a place of love, it quickly becomes corrupted by unending grief, leading Alys into a tragic character arc. Meanwhile, Sammish longs for a deeper connection with Alys. While they are connected through their thief work, Alys does not truly see Sammish at the start of the story. We quickly learn that Sammish is in love with Alys, and that motivation is what drives her through much of the story. However, even that connection, or desire for one, changes as Sammish grows into her own. Meanwhile, Andomaka is motivated by a connection to the city of Kithamar itself and the power that rules it. Not that she wants anything for herself, but that she wishes to maintain a previously unbroken connection. Unlike the other two, that connection begins corrupted and, by the time Andomaka begins to change, the story has moved on.
Age of Ash is a novel of imaginative world-building, relatable characters, and an endlessly intriguing plot. While those serve as the initial draw into the story, and hold readers attention, the twists and reveals of what is truly happening in Kithamar serve as the hook. Abraham also proves that he is a master of providing payoffs to things he sets up at the beginning, and, without spoiling anything, it is worth it to pay attention to how Alys’ crew run their thefts, as well as the terminology they use. Unfortunately, the book does suffer from a slow pace, sometimes very slow, which is why this book took longer to read than normal. This is the start of a planned trilogy of novels, and hopefully Abraham will tighten it up a little now that readers have spent some time in Kithamar. However, despite that slow pace, it is time well spent, as the book encourages readers to take their time in the streets of Kithamar and simply experience the life of the city.
Age of Ash can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 27 days
Next on the List: The Mirror Man, by Lars Kepler