AGE OF ASH by Daniel Abraham (BOOK REVIEW)
“For one night, Kithamar is a city between worlds and between
ages. It falls out of its own history, at once the end of something and the beginning of something else.”
Age of Ash is the first in a new epic fantasy trilogy by well-known author Daniel Abraham. Despite owning The Dagger and Coin series for years, this is my first foray into Abraham’s novels, and after being utterly enchanted by his prose, I definitely want to read more.
Our tale is set in the illustrious city of Kithamar, a city full of beauty, but with a rich history of blood and war, a city where every person has a story to unfold, a city where a sinister secret has long been kept hidden. It is also a city where two thieves from the slums of Longhill become embroiled in a plot of dark magic and deadly political intrigue. We follow Alys and Sammish, both members of a thieving crew, both skilled in their roles of distraction and going unnoticed. Yet what begins as petty thievery soon turns into so much more. When Alys’s brother Darro is murdered, Alys sets on a journey of discovery and revenge, which leads her down some very treacherous paths. Sammish seeing her beloved Alys suffer and struggle under her grief, tries to help her friend in any way she can, but the more she learns the truth about the murder and the multitude of connections surrounding it, she soon realises she has to try to save more than just her friend.
The opening to this book reminded me of The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, another fantasy book set in a single city, revolving around a band of thieves. However, whereas Locke Lamora focuses on a heist plot with humorous banter and action filled scenes, Age of Ash is a slow burn character driven story. There are small amounts of action scattered throughout but it is more towards the end where we see the scenes become more intense. Yet Abraham’s characters are full of depth and complexities, loss and pain, they are people trying to survive despite life dealing them a bad hand, and I became deeply immersed in their lives as they unravel. Within the first few chapters Abraham portrays disjointed scenes, moments of our characters’ lives from their memories to their present deeds. At first these do feel disconnected from one another, you’re never quite sure how these separate storylines will converge, but as the novel progresses they all fall into place.
Immediately I found Abraham’s prose and imagery to be exquisitely detailed. Each description, each setting, was written with such beauty and finesse, it vividly conjured the images in my mind. The City of Kithamar is stunningly brought to life, a character in its own right that fully lives and breathes. Whether it be the deteriorating slums of Longhill, where the people are on the verge of starving, or the more fanciful harvest festival held in Green Hill, I felt the world seep from the page. Abraham is a writer who knows how to set an atmospheric scene.
The book also poignantly explores grief in all its forms. Abraham reflects the way grief is never a singular formulaic response; when we lose someone we hold close to us we lose a part of ourselves, and the way our mind copes with the trauma is different for everyone. Many may say “with time it gets easier”, but for some people it just doesn’t. Throughout Age of Ash, Alys experiences grief in various ways, from denial, to sorrow, to anger and finally to becoming more and more like Darro to keep a part of her brother alive. My heart broke for Alys, the way she would remember Darro’s words, repeating them like a mantra, her fond memories of when he’d look after her when the world abandoned her in the cold, and the way she takes on his mannerisms and begins to live by “what would Darro do?” His death clearly colours her every action, and this to my mind is exactly what grief does.
“Everything stood on everything
else, until she didn’t know what she was mourning for except all of it. She was overwhelmed by a storm she couldn’t see, but felt it beating at her from every direction.”
I loved Alys’s character, her journey is raw and painful, and although many times she sorely needed to realise the downfall she was heading towards, I understood why she couldn’t. Her relationship with her mother is strained, her friendships with others become distant, and instead of building bridges she shatters them and forges new ones, but with the wrong people.
“That’s not fair.”
“Who gives a shit? Who promised you fair? I didn’t. Fair is good people get treated good, and bad people get the bad. That sound like anyplace you know? I’ve never been there.”
As much as this book centers around Alys, it too follows our second main protagonist, Sammish. Oh how I loved precious Sammish. A person so plain she passes unnoticed in a crowd, a girl who can all but become invisible – a pretty handy trick when you’re part of a thieving crew and your job is to sneak the stolen items away before any of your crew members are caught, no? That’s how Sammish’s story begins, but when her narrative leads her down some strange paths, people suddenly take notice. Throughout Sammish desperately wants to help Alys, yet the more Alys changes, the more she descends into darkness, and most importantly the more Sammish discovers about the corruption and dark magic running through Kithamar, she puts her courage to the test. Sammish is a wonderful, heartfelt character, one who may be a thief in order to survive, but she’s the underdog who will use the advantage of the shadows to fight against malevolence.
Speaking of malevolent, there is a sinister spirit lurking in Kithamar, a spirit which has been present right back to the time of Kithamar’s creation. I will tread careful waters here as this was a fantastic little twist to the story which I thoroughly enjoyed. However what I can say is that a large part of the story centres around the Daris Brotherhood, the most predominantly practiced religion by the ruling family in Kithamar. Our other main characters, Adomanka and Tregarro, are it’s foremost members and although I wouldn’t class either characters as the “villains” in this story, (their motives are far more complex than that), their powers dabble in the use of dark magic, sacrifices and blood, which I found unnervingly creepy. They are also on the hunt for a knife and young boy of royal blood, two things which they will kill to get.
I did find myself wanting some more depth to The Daris Brotherhood, their use of powers and their limitations were never quite fully explained and some parts left me somewhat confused. I feel that this book only touched upon the surface of this though, so I’m eager to discover much more because Abraham definitely has my attention here.
Age of Ash is a stunningly written, character driven story, centred on thieves, grief, and dark magic. Abraham certainly knows how to enchant his readers and transport them to the city of Kithamar, a place of beauty and of forbidding secrets.
“The world is so much rounder when you have more than just the one life in it.”
ARC provided by Nazia at Orbit Books in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for the copy! All quotes used are taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication. Age of Ash is due for release February 2022