One of the reasons Brandon Sanderson took off, I suspect, is that he manages to bring an urban fantasy feel to more high fantasy or epic fantasy settings. In Ashes of the Sun, Django Wexler accomplishes a similar feat. This is a book set in a world incredibly different from our own, a land reminiscent of the epic fantasy books that for a time dominated this genre, yet the pacing and style are much closer to urban fantasy. I find that very appealing, and even though it took me a few more days to read than normal, I was captivated by this book from beginning to end.
I received this book for free from NetGalley and Orbit in exchange for a review.
Maya and Gyre are brother and sister, torn asunder by the Twilight Order, a powerful group of magic-wielders who uphold the Dawn Republic. Taken from her family at age 5, Maya has is now 17 and on track to graduating from a magical apprenticeship to become a centarch, a magical guardian of the Order who can shape the force of creation to her own martial ends. Gyre, figuratively and literally scarred by the abduction of sister when he as only 8, now makes a living as a bit of a rebel in the city of Deepfire. His ardent passion: the destruction of the Order and the Republic, but to do that, he’s going to need some seriously powerful tools. Fate, of course, conspires to throw these siblings together at the most inopportune time while they are on opposite sides—and to be honest, if you think you know what’s going to happen, you’re probably wrong! But no spoilers.
I mentioned Sanderson at the top for a reason: fans of Sanderson will recognize a lot of his worldbuilding style here, although to be honest, I prefer Wexler’s looser formulation of magic, etc.—Sanderson’s quite strict approach always left me a little cold. Nevertheless, the whole worldbuilding of this book is impressively deep and creative in scope. Some of the names—Twilight Order, Dawn Republic—in Ashes of the Sun feel a little clichéd, but this book’s world and story are anything but. We’re in fallen civilization mode; the Republic and surrounding kingdoms cling to the technological and magical remnants of two, much older and much more powerful non-human civilizations that fought a massive war sometime in the past and basically wiped each other out. Maya believes the Order is a force for good, albeit sometimes maybe too forceful—Wexler sketches out internecine politics within the Order that make for an excellent subplot with just the right amount of intrigue. Gyre, on the other hand, his mind poisoned against the Order ever since that fateful day on his parents’ farm, sees it as a restraint on the rest of humanity, holding them back from achieving something … well, he’s not sure what, but something great! In this way, the two siblings embody a kind of order/chaos duality, which is reinforced by the alternating chapter structure of the narrative. This doesn’t always work great in a book, yet Wexler stays committed to this structure for pretty much the entire book, and it really works here. I found myself so obsessed with one character’s story, only to be yanked away from them to the other character at the worst time, so of course I had to keep reading!
The character development here is top shelf. Maya isn’t exactly a Chosen One, which I love, but she does have something special about her—something Wexler teases us with yet stubbornly leaves for a future book to explore further. Well done! In addition to the growth that Maya and Gyre experience, several of the supporting cast also grow. In particular, Tanax begins the story as a very stereotypical antagonist, and I was concerned that’s all he would remain. Yet his growth is some of the most impressive, most realistic of the entire book. The only character who truly remains static and somewhat melodramatic is Naumoriel, in my opinion, with his grating “boy” and “girl” every time he tries to sound condescending. Ok, boomer.
And then we have the romance. As you may know, I’m aromantic, and romance in books tends to do little for me. At best I just ignore it. Yet Maya and Beq??? SO ADORABLE. That’s all I‘m going to say about that, really, except for two addenda: this is an f/f relationship (to be clear); also, this book very explicitly mentions masturbation and we need more of that kind of honesty. Ashes of the Sun has a kind of relentlessly queer undercurrent to it, and unlike some books where that’s the case, none of the bad guys ever stoop to homophobia as a way of insulting or belittling the protagonists. At one point, we learn that Maya’s mentor taught her that people might be attracted to men, women, both, or neither—hello shoutout to asexuality (even if the phrasing does perpetuate a gender binary)! All in all, I love the way Wexler handles the romance and sexuality in this book.
If I haven’t given you enough reasons yet to read Ashes of the Sun, I don’t know what else to say. This is one of the most original fantasy books I’ve read in ages. I love how it ends; I want to read a sequel, which apparently isn’t far off; I even fell for the romance. How’s that for a trifecta?