New trilogy from one half of the James S.A. Corey duo? Definitely interested. Disclaimer: I don’t think I read beyond Leviathan Wakes in The Expanse series, but maybe I’ll go back one day. For now, though, let’s talk about Age of Ash. Abraham sets us up to expect heists, recrimination, and plenty of intrigue. I would say that this book mostly delivers, though I could see how there is room for disappointment depending on the type of expectations one goes in with.
Thanks to NetGalley and Orbit for the eARC!
Kithamar is a city on the river. It was a meeting place, though now the two major ethnicities live mostly peaceably side by side. Ruled by a prince (the term is gender neutral in Kithamar), the city has its share of the poor and disadvantaged. Alys and Sammish both fall into this category. They grew up in Longhill, the poorest district. After Alys’s brother Darro dies mysteriously, Alys vows to discover who killed him and why. This leads her down a dangerous path, putting her in the employ of a man and a woman from Green Hill—the richest district—and stretching her morals to their limits. Meanwhile, Sammish’s unrequited love for Alys forces her to confront the dark currents that threaten to sweep up Alys in their wake. And the city of Kithamar does not slumber—it is completely, personally awake.
It took me a while to get into Age of Ash (and a while longer to finish it, but for once that was entirely scheduling and nothing to do with the book!). The plot is a rather slow burn, and Abraham’s writing style is heavy on description. As a result, I was well over a fifth of the way into the book before I started seeing the bigger picture—but what a picture it is.
The main plot might be the least interesting part, and it is still very good. I won’t go into much detail so as to avoid spoilers. Suffice it to say, there is a dark secret at the heart of the city and its leadership. But the people who maintain this secret have enemies who want to see them fall. Abraham implies that these people aren’t very good, but it’s also unclear if their fall would really be all that better than the system that currently exists.
To be honest, though, I cared way more about what was happening to Alys and Sammish. The book starts off with Alys as the viewpoint protagonist. But she becomes an increasingly unsympathetic character, and Sammish more sympathetic, as the story goes on. This is a brilliant piece of storytelling on Abraham’s part. Alys’s obsession with holding on to the memory of her brother at first threatens to mould her into her brother—yet as Sammish points out later in the book, Alys actually goes much further. The changes are subtle and gradual enough that we can see Alys leaving behind her Longhill roots. We can also see her relationship with Sammish faltering.
Never even friends, more colleagues, Alys and Sammish’s relationship is strained for most of this book. Again, I find myself praising Abraham’s decisions here. What could have been a very simple unrequited love story turns into something more nuanced. As Alys grows distant and more cutthroat, Sammish at first tries to convince herself that she doesn’t care. In reality, she cares quite a bit. And so their relationship goes through ups and downs as each learns more about the secret of Kithamar in their own time and own ways. I like that these two are at odds more than they are aligned, and that the book gradually pivots from being wholly Alys’s story to including Sammish too—I think a good argument might be made that Sammish is more the protagonist than Alys even.
So much epic fantasy focuses on the princes of realms. He is present here, kind of, but the book is actually about the most invisible members of Kithamar society. That, too, is not new to fantasy at all—yet Abraham writes it in a way that feels very refreshing. Having read Age of Ash, I feel satiated, like I just had a full and delicious meal. I’m not exactly hungry for the next book, but I would read it just to see where Abraham goes with this world next.