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Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham3 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsDaniel Abraham at long last completed the groundbreaking Expanse series with writing partner Ty Franck at the end of 2021. So expectations were understandably high for his return to epic fantasy, a genre in which he’s already released two critically acclaimed series, The Long Price Quartet and The Dagger and the Coin. Age of Ash is the first volume of a new trilogy set in Kithamar, a massive walled city divided by a deep river, and ruled by the Hansch, a race of people who live mostly in the wealthy districts on the river’s west side. Over to the east, the poorer districts are home to the Inlisc, a race of people conquered in the distant past when the Hansch colonized their lands and absorbed them into what would eventually become Kithamar.

By all rights, this should be the fantasy epic of its year. But there’s something about this story that keeps its potential for greatness at arm’s length. Despite its richly realized secondary world and a plot that promises high stakes, Age of Ash rarely generates big excitement. It’s a story of thieves and assassins, of political treachery and secret societies, of colonialism and the impact of cyclical poverty, of trust and betrayal between family and friends. But the narrative is so rambling and inconsistent in both its focus and pacing that we’re about halfway through before we start to see the big picture with any clarity. And while it does ultimately pay off in the last hundred pages, which are excellent and worth the effort, there is a lot of slog to endure before you get there.

Though it’s the beginning of a trilogy, I’m not sure where Abraham intends to go in the sequels. Age of Ash does feel like a stand-alone story. That’s a good thing, because I’ve always felt that series novels should function as novels, resolving their conflicts and tying up all of their own loose ends without just stringing us along with cheap cliffhangers. But to whatever degree Age of Ash is an imperfect book, it sets a lovingly detailed stage for any future story Abraham should choose to tell.

As the book opens, we learn that the city’s ruler, Prince Byrn a Sal, has died after less than a year on the throne. We get big hints that he was not the legitimate heir, and that a battle for the throne is being fought behind the scenes and out of sight of the common folk of the city, who are just trying to get by, day to day. Once this groundwork is laid, the story takes us to the beginning of that tumultuous year. Our viewpoint characters are two young women: Alys, who ekes a living doing petty street crimes as part of a little gang of cutpurses, and her friend Sammish, who harbors an unrequited crush on Alys, though not one so strong that she’s surrendered her sense of independence.

Alys is mourning her older brother, Darro, killed shortly after protecting her from a city guardsman after one of her gang’s little crimes went wrong. Overcome with guilt, she believes that he was murdered in retribution for helping her. But her investigation into his death reveals that he was involved in something pretty big, working for a noblewoman named Andomaka, highly placed both in the royal court and in a religious sect called the Daris Brotherhood. Andomaka is cousin to the new prince, and sees Byrn a Sal’s rule as illegitimate because he never underwent the sacred rituals to ensure that the Thread of Kithamar, a kind of magical embodiment of the soul of the city, was unbroken. She intends to restore that thread, and her plans involve things like abduction and murder. And it was this unsavory business that Darro had gotten caught up in. Now, Sammish can only look on in despair as she watches Alys fall into the same dark spiral that ensnared and ultimately killed her brother.

Age of Ash is perhaps better enjoyed as the story of an embattled friendship rather than an imperiled kingdom. Alys is the kind of character Abraham has written before, someone whose bad choices, and the consequences thereof, don’t become clear to them until it’s too late to course-correct. But even though we can see the pathos in the way she’s pursuing a path so morally compromised that even her beloved brother wouldn’t recognize her (as Sammish warns her), Alys doesn’t really win over our sympathy until late in the story, when her character arc ultimately forces her into some painful epiphanies. For the longest time, Sammish is the only character we care for, especially the maturity and courage she shows in understanding that she can’t save her friend from herself, and she’s probably going to have to let Alys go — or more accurately, let go of a dream of Alys that was never going to be their reality. This is no YA romance, and there’s no cheap, tear-jerking melodrama here, just honest compassion for the way the saddest life lessons are the ones that we can’t avoid, and that we need the most.

But while we can root for Alys and Sammish, we’re never given a reason to root for Kithamar. All this dreary business about the prince and the brotherhood and a secret heir and this sinister, disembodied power that somehow controls the destiny of Kithamar — frankly, it’s hard to give a damn about any of that. Andomaka feels underwritten for a villainess, while her henchman, Tregarro, deeply devoted to the Brotherhood (and also secretly in love with Andomaka) is only slightly more interesting. And the ill-fated prince Byrn a Sal isn’t even given the chance to be a character at all. So we have no way of knowing if he’d be a good ruler or a bad one. We honestly don’t care who rules, because no one involved in this war for the crown seems like they’d do anything meaningful to better the lives of the people. Might as well burn it all down, right? At least anyone reading this book who feels that way will find ultimate satisfaction.

Followed by a sequel.