King of Ashes by Raymond E. Feist
“For Centuries, the five greatest Kingdoms of North and South Tembria, twin continents on the world of Garn, have coexisted in peace. But the balance of power is destroyed when four of the kingdoms violate an ancient covenant and betray the fifth: Ithrace, the Kingdom of Flames, ruled by Steveren Langene, know as “the Fireman” for his brilliant red hair. As war engulfs the world, Ithrace is destroyed and the Greater Realms of Tembria are thrust into a dangerous struggle for supremacy.
As a free Lord, Baron Daylon Dumarch owes allegiance to no King. When an abandoned infant is found hidden in Daylon’s pavilion, he realises that the child must be the missing heir of the slain Steveren. The boy is valuable – and vulnerable. A cunning and patient man, Daylon decides to keep the baby’s existence secret, and sends him to be raised on the Island of Coaltachin, home of the so-called Kingdom of Night, where the powerful and lethal nocusara, the “Hidden Warriors,” legendary assassins and spies, are trained.
Years later, another orphan of mysterious province, a young man named Declan, earns his Masters rank as a weaponsmith. Blessed with intelligence and skill, he unlocks the secret to forging King’s Steel, the apex of a weapon maker’s craft known be very few. Yet this precious knowledge is alos deadly, and Declan is forced to leave home to safeguard his life. Landing in Lord Daylon’s provinces, he hopes to start anew.
Soon, the two young men – an unknowing heir to a throne and a brilliantly talented young swordsmith – will discover that their fates, and that of Garn, are entwined. The legendary, long-ago Battle of Betrayal has never truly ended…….and they must discover the secret of who truly threatens their world.”
Slipping back into Raymond Feist’s new series is a treat. King of Ashes has its roots in much of the popular fantasy from the past and embraces the tropes the writer helped establish. His book Magician was one of the first fantasy books I ever read and Jimmy the Hand from that series is one of my favourite characters of all time. The Empire trilogy he wrote with Jenny Wurts featuring the indomitable Mara of the Acoma is another personal treasure from my youth and Mara and Arasaki again are two characters I’ll never forget. I jumped at the chance to read King of Ashes when Harper Voyager sent me an early copy and had high hopes of becoming hooked again.
First things first, you read the blurb at the top, yeah? Well the entire plot of the novel is covered in that blurb. Entirely. Frankly, I don’t know if this qualifies as a spoiler or not because it’s never happened to me before, but I feel it is something a potential reader should know. You will get to know the characters, enjoy moments in their lives and wonder how they fit into the big picture, but there is little in the way of surprises or events unfolding that you could never have seen coming. And whilst this is very much a first book in the series and the set up for the future is important, I feel that the current crop of writers are being held to a stricter standard in terms of having a conclusion that pulls threads together, wows the readers and gets the pulse racing. As a result I flipped the last page feeling like I’d watched the first episode of a TV series and there were nine episodes to come as opposed to having invested 6 hours of reading and being right in the guts of the story. I’d have loved to have a bigger third act, an identifiable villain (or even a douchebag) to rile up against and few more attempts at some twists and turns.
In terms of the set up and the initial thoughts on the characters, things felt a bit….derivative. Kid 1. Fire Kingdom. Royal Orphan spirited away. Trained to be an awesome killer without knowing his destiny and identity. Has two friends, a girl he is only just noticing and is awkwardly attracted to and a boy who fools around too much but is loyal and strong. Kid 2. Lineage unknown, masters forging steel at incredibly young age, despite limited training seems to possess incredible fighting skills, taught valuable secret by master and currently seeking destiny. Feist taught me to love some of the popular tropes in fantasy, but here it feels a little like he has collected some of his favourites and just chucked them all in for the fun of it.
Despite the harsh judgements, King of Ashes is very easy to read and the 450-odd pages flew by with little effort. I enjoyed meeting the characters and seeing them grow and interact, and the events of the very last page are enough for me to pick up the next book and see where this goes. Overall, I feel like readers new to the genre will really enjoy it and those familiar with the author will embrace it with a sense of nostalgia. However, if you love your grimdark more than your epic and have enjoyed the evolution of fantasy over the last 20 years, this might seem a little old-fashioned and basic.