WE MEN OF ASH AND SHADOW by HL Tinsley (SPFBO 7 Finalist Review)
And so to the fourth of our final month finalist reviews, another take on urban bleakness in which the city gets a starring role.
Amidst the gas lamp shadows former soldier-turned-mercenary John Vanguard hunts criminals at the behest of his corrupt employer, Captain Felix Sanquain. Shamed by his deserter past and seeking to make amends for his many misdeeds, a chance encounter with Tarryn Leersac – a skilled young would-be-assassin fallen from the graces of high society – leads Vanguard to become an unlikely mentor.
Charged with hunting down the killer of two guards left washed up on the banks of the canal, the further Vanguard delves into the underbelly of the city the more he finds himself entangled in a web of secrets and lies. A prominent aristocrat is missing. Crime lords, con men and harlots run amok and the city teeters on the brink of another revolution.
With his already precarious reputation hanging by a thread, Vanguard must piece together how and why the last war came to pass, find a way to earn redemption for his mistakes and come to terms with the past in a city where few survive, and even fewer can be trusted.
A Grimdark novel with elements of adventure and gaslight fantasy, ‘We Men of Ash and Shadow’ explores themes of redemption, loyalty, and betrayal against the backdrop of a world where survival often means compromising your values.
‘We Men of Ash and Shadow’ is an adult fantasy novel and as such, contains adult themes and language.
The cover has a kind of noir feel to it, the tilt to the buildings on the right along with the grey palette of the colour scheme evoking the cinematic effects of old black and white Hitchcock films.
The prose is strong, the sardonic voice of third person characters and narrator leaving me with lots of highlighted “nice lines” in my kindle.
While the absence of any typos suggests good professional copy editing, I know that Calvin has picked up on a tendency to “head-hop,” where the point of view character shifts not just within a scene but within a paragraph. This can be jarring for the reader and is the kind of thing that editing which goes beyond the essentials of spelling, punctuation & grammar would pick up on.
I have to admit, writing this review is the first time I’ve actually looked at the cover! One of the downsides of ebooks, really. The background is quite busy, and that makes the title a little difficult to read for me, but I like the artwork.
By comparison, the physical copy of this novel isn’t as tall in size as the other novels in the finals, but not quite as small as a mass-market paperback either. The cover has this dark mysterious noir feel to it, depicting a scene in the streets under an ominous sky at night with an industrial-looking city looming over a shadow of a person. A really great option for the cover with respect to what the novel is about.
I did notice that in the physical copy, the pages weren’t fully used in the formatting. There are large spaces above and below the text on the pages…just a bit unusually big from what I’m used to. I didn’t pick up on any spelling errors but also noticed the narrator’s changes and thought it was just me.
I enjoyed the cover on this one. It’s quite evocative and I think it really fits the story contained within the book very well. It communicates the sort of world you’re about to enter really well, both in terms of ambiance, as well as architecture and technology. It’s very well done. I didn’t notice any typos or other issues of copy editing. The production value, in that sense, seems very good. As Theo mentioned, I did pick up on a tendency to head-hop quite a bit. What I mean by this is that the viewpoint suddenly shifts to another character in the scene, or perhaps to a sort of omniscient narrator with no warning to reason. Having said that, I don’t think this is due to a lack of editing. Instead, I think it’s a deliberate decision on the part of the author and that’s fine. It didn’t work for me, and it isn’t generally in vogue with modern fantasy, but if you were to read novels written in the 70s or early 80s you’d find plenty of this sort of head-hopping prose.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
The book is populated with morally grey characters, haunted by their past or their circumstance. Vanguard carries the story well, as the weary and guilt ridden survivor of a military disaster now employed by a cruel dictator to administer summary justice to reprobates. Tarryn, the counterfoil as aristocrat fallen into genteel poverty with a dementia ridden mother attracts some initial sympathy. But Tinsley fills out the cast with a range of other differently oddball characters, Carmen the prostitute, Henrietta the madam, Kosic the gigantic wrestler, who all have the appeal that people struggling with their circumstances engender. However, I was surprised to find Sanderson, Vanguard’s “co-worker” growing on me – as the book showed, explored and developed his antipathy towards Vanguard and how he grew in his response to that.
The characters were all well crafted. As Theo said, they’re all morally grey, and they have a depth I don’t feel like I find in grimdark books as often. As a result, even the characters I couldn’t stand were interesting to read and that made the whole book more enjoyable. One of the things that kept me reading was seeing how each character developed as the plot progressed, for better or worse.
The changes of POV mid-paragraph didn’t work for me though. They were jarring and occasionally confusing, even if the information gained was needed, and it really disrupted the flow of the story.
A novel that takes place in a city that is gripped by tyranny, corruption and crime needs the right kind of mix of corrupt, good and morally shady characters to get into the grit. Vanguard, a former soldier, turned mercenary is the man for the job and centered here. He is well fleshed out and draws of his experience and failures of his former life. He is very likable because he is imperfect and isn’t one to act out immediately. His restraint and deliberate choices show the right traits of humility and carries a backstory that uncovers his loyalties and battles. He becomes a powerful player in the corrupt streets of D’Orsee which comes through in the way he deals with other characters. I enjoyed his treatment of Carmen, the prostitute, and how he took on Tarryn to teach him some of the ropes in the city.
All of the other characters added great flavor to the overall concept of the story and I enjoyed them.
One thing that Tinsley really excels at is showing you the reasons behind why her characters are the way they are. Then, to top it off, she gets you pulling for characters whose decisions are not always the best, because at the end of the day they’re just so incredibly human. Vanguard definitely carries the story as the main protagonist, though I found myself attracted to Tarryn very early on through the pain of his mother and her dementia. There are plenty of believable side characters as well, and overall I think the characters were one of the strongest pieces of the novel. My complaint is that, because of the regular head-hoping, I was often distracted from what was going on inside the characters thoughts, or had to re-read lines when a viewpoint shifted and thus found myself pulled entirely out of the story.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
For me the plot was one of the book’s weaker aspects, although I did like some of the themes that it addressed. Characters were thrown into a melting pot of a city-world and a politically fraught situation. Tinsley adds the stimulus of some random incidents and actions which at times appear more convenient than logical as the heady mixture is brought to the boil. There is a story in there, but I felt carried along more by wanting to know what happened to the characters than by a desire to find out how the central plot mysteries got resolved.
Like Theo, I was more interested in the character development than the plot itself. Some aspects felt a little flimsy, and didn’t hold up to deeper scrutiny. That said, when not jumping around POVs, I found the book flowed well and kept things moving enough that any flaws in the plot were easily glossed over.
This is one of those novels that picks up speed as you read. From the initial scenes of 2 killed guards to fighting criminals in between and the backstories/motivating factors, its strength is connected to its weakness for me. The very character-driven novel takes place centrally localized in the underbelly/dark streets and shadows of a city. The elements of setting and characters were gritty and kept me reading, though what I was missing a little was the reach in which everything takes place within its setting. The confines of the movement were a bit restricted to me, that is, I felt the characters or action was moving in a limiting manner always between the same places and I had to draw on other things to keep me interested.
If the characters were the strongest element of the novel, then–for me at least–the plot was the weakest. There were a lot of themes that I normally like, especially about poverty, oppression, and consequences of decisions. I feel safe in saying that this is more of a character story than a plot story, and that’s normally fine with me. But, once again, I think that I was just jarred out of the characters so much by the head-hoping form of narrative that it just didn’t work for me. In the end I had a hard time getting through the novel, and I think that was partially because the plot just didn’t hook me and the characters, while interesting, lacked strong, limited perspective.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
In a great tradition of city states, Tinsley gives us D’Orsee – a kind of darker grimmer Ankh Morpock and at its head Captain Sanquain – a less moral and more ruthless version of the Patrician Vetinari. The period feel is more Victorian than traditional medieval fantasy, with pistols, clocks and diesel oil, which makes Vanguard’s reliance on a knife as his weapon of choice feel a little risky – but then Vanguard has his talents. Tinsley keep the magic of the world nicely enigmatic, the only magic touch is in Vanguard’s power to move unseen which makes him so potent an assassin. It isn’t quite invisibility, more an ability to project a personal version of the “Somebody Else’s Problem Field” concept from Douglas’ Adams’ Hitchhiker series. The origins of this power remain unexplained and only one other character seems to have the same talent, but it is intriguing.
I did appreciate the way that Tinsely portrays a society riven with inequality deliberately perpetuated by those at the top, who view the weak and the poor as somehow less than human and in need of periodic culling through warfare or civil unrest. Furthermore Tinsley shows how the wealthy elite seek to exert control over their lower classes by finding others more desperate who can be “othered” and “demonised” in order to become the distraction and target for hate.
“They had been told of men who spoke in secret languages and conspired to steal their jobs and homes. It was easier to believe that their enemy was made up of strangers from another world than it was to face the fact that the true enemy was the one they had chosen for themselves.”
I quite liked the worldbuilding, but I would have liked to see more of the history shared as sometimes it felt like there was a bit of context missing. I also liked that the setting was more on the gaslamp side, it made it more interesting to me than more typical grimdark fare.
I also want to know more about the magic system. I don’t generally mind when authors are mysterious about how their magic system works, but as it’s restricted to only two characters, and neither of them are particularly interested in understanding how or why (beyond how to use it for their nefarious purposes), I found myself very frustrated.
This novel didn’t start with a bang or a magical event of sorts. It has an immense noir feel to it and I loved the grit of it all. This sort of underdog story takes place in the underbelly of the city and dark alleys, bridges, rooftops, brothels, etc. Bootlegging times and gangs come to mind. It offers such a great atmosphere to read in! I thought the societal setup was well done and the divisions within. Overall it had almost steampunk vibes and the combo of elusive powers and the simplicity of streetfights felt like it was within reach. A kind of pulp fiction in a positive sense, animated and engaging, highly readable. Fantastical elements were on the subtle side with this one, but that was ok with me.
I think the world building was pretty solid in We Men of Ash and Shadow. I especially thought the portrayal of a society that deliberately maintains a clear and obvious inequality was striking. The overall feel of the world is also not what you commonly see in fantasy. There is a sort of Victorian or even steampunk–or perhaps more gaslamp than steampunk–feel to the entire world. That makes things rather fun and I was certainly intrigued by various aspects of the world.
I do love magic in my fantasy, however, and the pickings were a little slim in this regard. There is magic, but it doesn’t play a particularly large role in the world and I would have loved to have seen more. I do want to be clear that this is a matter of personal taste. It isn’t that the author has failed to craft a believable world or anything of that nature. I just like lots of magic and Tinsley’s story is more “low fantasy” in that regard.
Quotations that resonated with you
I did get a lot of nice pithy lines which amused me or resonated or sometimes did both.
For example, when describing how the political standoff between two sides might be resolved
“In the end all it came down to was who could tell the best lies.”
Or describing one characters’ ineptitude
“Paulette couldn’t boil water without burning it.”
Perhaps a bit of contemporary political commentary, alongside an insight into the perils of running a brothel.
“Sadly, not even Henriette could control the actions of evil men. All the rules in the world did not matter to someone who was willing to break them.”
Of Paulette one of the prostitutes
“‘I don’t want to be alone anymore.’ Paulette was never alone. What she wanted was not to be lonely anymore.”
And finally – because I have so many lines I liked, and must stop somewhere – I’ll finish with the line that the book gets its title from.
“We are men of ash and shadow. We endure the darkness so that others might see the dawn.”
The prose was regularly delightful, and one quote I particularly liked was the last Theo selected. Another favourite:
“There was a thin line between mercenary and soldier, and an even thinner one between mercenary and murderer.”
There was plenty of great word play in this novel. Two I liked and highlighted among others were:
“You see, the truth is I’ve never been a man.” The sound of anguished gurgling filled the air. “I was always a monster. I just didn’t know it until recently.”
In the end all it came down to was who would tell the best lies. That was all it had ever been, both of hem weaving a spider’s web of stories and rumours spun across the streets and woven through the fabric of the city.
The prose has moments where it shines, and where certain turns of phrases and juxtapositions work well. For instance:
Vanguard was not a person adept in the fine art of casual conversation. Carmen was not a person accustomed to men trying to make much conversation with her of any kind, casual or otherwise. It made for an awkward, silent journey
I enjoyed it. I was slightly disappointed that it was not entirely a standalone. I felt we’d reached a point where the central plot points could have been tied up nicely in a suitable climax, but Tinsley seemed reluctant to finish off all her villains or heroes. But the flowing prose, unusual seasoning of magic, and atmospheric gloomy city setting were all very satisfying.
Ultimately, this one was a little disappointing for me. There was a lot I liked, especially with the characters, but the lack of explanation around the magic system and POV changes kept me from enjoying it as much as I wanted to. It’s still a solid book, just not for me.
I enjoyed this novel but found myself going a bit in and out in my investment into it. Partially due to it taking place in such a localized area, and a few moments, as observed by the fellow judges, the jump in some scenes in which it became easy to be lost in the turn of the characters’ voices for instance. I do feel that the novel was well thought out and carefully crafted and the the reader’s choice or taste in reading matters greatly when picking this one up. If one enjoys steampunk vibes and or city noir crime type novels, it could be considered a treasure in that niche of the genre.
Sadly, this one didn’t hit for me, although the world building was interesting and the characters very believable and at times achingly authentic. The head-hoping made it difficult for me to get into those characters, and the plot and dearth of magic didn’t give me much else to hang my hat on.
And the All Important Scores
|Rounded to the nearest half mark for Mark||6.5|