Reviewing a first Abraham book is always a challenging prospect. Looking back at A Shadow in Summer and The Dragon’s Path, both were clearly designed as foundational books that are heavily expanded on in the sequels. Though I was lukewarm in my reception of both those series beginnings when I read them, I ended up liking them way more the further I read in their respective stories. So, it is a sign of big potential that I liked Age of Ash, the start of Abraham’s new Kithamar series, right off the bat.
Kithamar is a massive fantasy metropolis, and the series that shares its name is about all of the different kinds of people who walk its streets unaware of the secrets in its bones. The books have a focus on partial storytelling, unreliable narrators, and tying lots of individual character stories into a larger more cohesive narrative. As far as I understand it, each book in the trilogy will have different POVs that will slowly flesh out the story and what is actually going on. As I read Age of Ash, the cinema flop that was The Last Duel was on the top of my mind, as the two stories on the surface share a premise. However, Abraham is able to breathe a lot more nuance and innovation into his storytelling to the point where I quickly abandoned the concern.
Age of Ash follows three perspectives: Alys, Sammish, and Andomaka. The three of them have a complicated and ever-changing set of relationships that is hard to summarize. Alys is a poor street rat who makes money cutting purses of wealthy travelers to Kithamar. Her story begins when another ends, as she discovers her beloved older brother has been killed on a job and she sets out on a quest to find out what happened and avenge him. Sammish is also a poor street rat who runs in similar circles to Alys, and she is in unrequited love with Alys. Sammish’s story pulls her into a quest that isn’t hers while she lives a life that isn’t conducive to having the resources to help others. Sammish must explore the cost and meaning of love while doing her best to just survive. Finally, Andomaka is a rich priestess of a brotherhood of the city. She is on a secret quest to right a terrible wrong that has to do with the metropolis’ magical heart.
The character stories in Age of Ash are phenomenal. This book, like many of Abraham’s, is a slow burn. Looking at the current Goodreads score of the ARC I suspect that many people expected similar pacing levels to the Expanse. This is a slow and subtle story that is told through the gradual growth and change of its characters. If you want pulse-pounding action, you will be disappointed. But, if you want an original and seductive story about people making the best choices they can with limited information this is for you. All three of the leads are great. I gravitated most to Sammish, but all three were emotionally affecting. Where the characters end is nowhere near where they start, it is hard to give a blanket comment about them as a whole. It is a powerful storytelling technique and one that Abraham excels at.
The book is very unpredictable and constantly keeps you on your toes. It almost feels like some sort of literary test that is trying to see how you process change and discord to smooth themes, ideas, and narrative arcs. You are provided just enough information that you can see that actions that characters want to do are going to fail, but not how they can adapt. Watching them process and react to new events is magical. Every page further I read into this book dug hooks into me deeper and deeper until I couldn’t escape.
The story is slow, and partially incomplete (as we still need to hear from all the other POVs), but that doesn’t mean there isn’t closure. Age of Ash tells its own story that fully works by itself and can only be improved by the next books. The worldbuilding is also both focused and detailed. Kithamar has many secrets and you will be burning to know what they are. The culture of the different districts feels vibrant and Abraham does a good job making the ghettos and poor quarters more than just slums. The prose is poetic while also being very human and emotive at the same time. Other than the pacing, which is required for the narrative, there isn’t much here to dislike.
Abraham is one of the most creative and original authors in the genre, and Age of Ash has the potential to be his best work yet. I generally had a great time with this novel and I think it represents a fusion between his older fantasy style and a number of things he learned while writing The Expanse. Age of Ash is great and I can’t wait to learn more about what lurks under the streets of Kithamar.
Rating: Age of Ash – 9.0/10
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.