I’m an unabashed fan of Daniel Abraham’s work. He’s one of those for which I will literally buy anything I can get my hands on. He has a way of telling stories that resonates with me. Whether it be through epic fantasy, urban fantasy, science fiction, or anything else, it consistently feels as if the man can do no wrong.
He’s said before that with each project, he sets forth with a certain goal in mind, and I can’t say that such goals have ever seemed to be at the forefront of his prose, for me. I think that’s one of the great things about his work. I can read them and enjoy the story and the characters without having to understand the author’s purpose. If he has a purpose, great. I don’t necessarily need to know what that is.
This time around however, the read left me wondering for the first time, what his motivation might have been when sitting down to pen this new novel of fantasy. Because, whatever it was, I kinda don’t get it.
AGE OF ASH is the first book in a projected trilogy about the city of Kithamar and it’s peoples. The story begins by weaving the subtle mystery surrounding the death of one of it’s rulers, and some of the history of this long-standing city, before focusing on one of its varied occupants. Each of the books in this series, we’ve been told, will cover essentially the same period of time, and only be told from the perspective of different sets of characters.
Alys is the first of two PoV characters from which this story is told. She’s young and, to some extent, carefree, in her navigation of the city. She roams its streets with a group of associates (friends?), thieving occupants of their hard earned monies. Each member of the group has a job, and they perform those jobs so regularly that they’ve become rote. They all know how each event will proceed, and how their target will respond. They’re professionals, in their own, young way, thinking that nothing can ever stop them. Until something does–a job goes wrong–and Alys’s older brother, a person of whom she thinks the world, comes running to her aid and is killed for his efforts. Dealing with the grief of her loss, she eventually finds her way into the remnants of her brother’s life, and the people with which he spent his time, and quickly finds herself pulled into a game that is much bigger and much more dangerous than she expected.
At some point down the road, a second PoV character comes into play: Sammish, a friend of Alys’s. There is some sense of a deeper relationship between the two, but it’s only minimally explored. We see Alys through Sammish’s eyes, we learn about Sammish’s life in the city, and how Alys’s interactions with the “friends” of her brother are part of something larger indeed. In time, she’s pulled into the same vortex as Alys, and how they work together will ultimately determine their fate.
If you’re thinking that there’s a decided lack of overtly fantastical stuff presented in my summary above, you’d absolutely be picking up what I’m putting down. It took me a long time to come to terms with this fact. The story itself is incredibly slow to reveal anything that feels like it has substance. Instead, it’s intimately involved in the story surrounding these two girls and their life in the city. In fact, it took until about halfway through the book, before I had any idea whatsoever as to what was happening on the larger scale.
On the bright side, the book is beautifully written. Descriptive and flowing. It lays out with subtle nuance the introduction of that larger story into the lives of these girls. Well-written to be sure. Character-centric, yes. Everything that one might ask for in a great story, yeah?
Mmm. Maybe not.
Initially, it kind of felt like the author had taken a similar tack to Abercrombie, thinking that you can have a bunch of characters sitting around a fire doing nothing and it’ll be riveting, but that’s not exactly it. These characters are anything but the sedentary examples Abercrombie has been writing as of late. By the time I made it to the end of the book, I’d finally realized a couple things, and was able to understand just why I didn’t find this story particularly compelling. In short, the two main characters of this story are secondary and tertiary characters with respect to the important events occurring within the city. Much later in the book, one of the primary characters of interest to the main events of the larger tale enters the city, and it is immediately obvious that this is the tale with which we should be involved.
But we’re not. And that’s kind of frustrating.
For reference, think of the first Back to the Future movie. The main story being told there occurs around Marty and Doc Brown, but mostly Marty. The novelization of that story would, arguably, be told from their perspectives, as is the movie. Now think about a story that surrounded Marty’s girlfriend and one of her other friends that happened to bump into Doc Brown at some point along the way, but only included very little of substance from Marty’s perspective or explicitly from Doc Brown.
That’s kind of what this book is like. It’s telling a story that is adjacent to the important one. When the details of this story are included in the larger story, a lot of these events become important in their own way, but individually, not only do they seem somehow mundane and unimportant, but they’re also completely overshadowed by the details of the central story when it finally comes into play. Additionally, when the story of these girls ends, it has only very little to do with the more important story at large. So, while it is somewhat successful in it’s attempt to complete the story of the girls, it felt unsatisfying because the central story is largely ignored, as the girls only had so very little to do with it in the first place.
Now, all that being said, I’m still incredibly interested in what the next book in the series is going to bring to the table. If the first book carved off these less important characters, then the next book should have more important characters that play roles more central to the important story that is being laid out within the city and thus be that much more interesting and engaging. Because this review is late in coming, I know from the summary of the next book that it is in fact told from the PoV of one of the “secondary” characters of this novel. A man that is closer to the main players, but not yet one of those at its heart. With this step in mind, I’d assume that the third and final book in the series will concern the current ruler of the city of Kithamar and the character that comes late into this book and seems of primary concern.
Once the trilogy is all told, the entire tapestry will be revealed, and from there we’ll be able to decide how much we really liked the whole story, and if this entire journey was worth it. And I can’t help but think that at that point, it will have been.
But as for this leg of it? Eh…?