ARC provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.
Kings of Ash triumphed over its predecessor in almost every possible way.
Kings of Ash is the second book in Richard Nell’s Ash and Sand trilogy. It’s the sequel to the highly praised Kings of Paradise, but the fans of the previous book don’t need to worry about stumbling into the infamous middle book syndrome here. Kings of Ash surpassed the previous book’s quality and it can all be boiled down to one reason: this is Ruka’s book. I mentioned this in my review of Kings of Paradise: “Ruka’s POV was easily one of the best anti-heroes POV I’ve ever read in grimdark fantasy,” and I stand by my words, even more so after reading this installment. Kings of Ash is a different kind of book from its predecessor; it’s much more character-driven. Almost the entire narrative was told from Ruka’s POV and I’m incredibly satisfied by this decision. Nell offers a deep exploration of Ruka’s character and it makes the storyline feel more intimate. More importantly, this storytelling style shows Nell’s greatest writing strength as an author – his characterizations.
“A lioness cares nothing for the shriek of jackals, old woman. Now hear this, and hear it well—if she had raised me to hate, I would kill you and all your kin, and no man or god could stop me.”
There’s something I realized while reading this book. It seems that I have the tendency to find well-written barbarians highly intriguing and compelling to read. The Bloody Nine, Karsa Orlong, and now Ruka. However, there’s something about Ruka that separated him from the other barbarians I mentioned; he’s a complex genius with an eidetic memory. Ruka was an extremely well-written character and it’s proven by how easy it was to root for him. Even when he did so many questionable things with heavy consequences, the motivations and purposes behind his savage actions felt realistic; it really brought life to his character. I was super invested in his journey and struggles. Beneath his demonic facade, he’s an honest bloke who takes no bullshit. Plus, because of the issues surrounding his birth and physical deformity, the unlikely friendships that he built felt incredibly genuine and, somehow, heart-warming. One the things about Ruka that Nell did exceptionally well was demonstrate how his eidetic memory capability helped in shaping his character. Usually, we think of eidetic memory as a gift. I mean, how awesome it would be if we didn’t have to reread a book to catch up on an incomplete series, to remember every single detail we’ve seen or experienced with a clear vision as if it literally just happened? Great, right? But how about pain and sadness? That also comes with it. Ruka’s eidetic memory doesn’t allow him to escape from anything he encountered; it becomes both a gift and a curse in his life. In my opinion, this amplified the quality of his characterizations, making his character original and fresh in the grimdark genre.
“And how could a man forgive, he wondered, if the memory of his wounds were as fresh as the day they spawned?
He thought perhaps this was his true curse—to remember. Other people never truly forgave, he thought—they only ever forgot the details, the feelings, the failures. But this was not a path open to him.”
The differences in the cultures and environments of the islands’ citizens enhanced the originality of world-building as well as characters’ motivations. In a way, there seemed to be more Norse and Vikings inspiration to the story than before. The invasions, weaponry (seax), and cultures in Ascom all reminded me of how Vikings used to behave. Outside of Ascom, the world seemed to brim with Asian influences. Other characters did receive a few spotlighted moments. Kale and Dala appeared here too, but their appearances were very brief in comparison to Ruka. I personally enjoyed this more because from my perspective, Ruka is the main character of this trilogy since the first book.
If you’ve seen my review of Kings of Paradise, you’ll notice that I had an issue with the pacing. Unfortunately, the problem was still a bit evident here. There were a few sections in Part II that felt draggy to read and they didn’t seem to add a lot of value to the overall content. Luckily, Parts I and III were thoroughly incredible and the uneven pacing was completely overwhelmed by the remaining stunning content of the book.
Before I close my review, I would like to also add that Kings of Ash turned the series from low magic fantasy into high magic fantasy; there was so much more magic involved within this novel. The inclusion of Grove (I won’t tell you what this is) seriously made the book more fascinating. The action sequences that Nell put upon the pages of this book was bloody, visceral, and impactful in grabbing my attention. Both the arcane magic and the divine power unleashed in full force during the Part III of this book were superbly written, creating one memorably vivid and exhilarating conclusion. Ash and Sand meet in the land of paradise and Heaven can only tremble at its convergence. I truly wish I could say more about this, but I’ve said more than enough. I need to be extra careful with what I mention in this review because the different timeframes that Nell used in this book make it easy to accidentally spoil the content of the first book. You simply must read this for yourself to experience all the emotional and “wow” moments in their full glory.
“Success is not your obligation, boy. Success is often luck and to think otherwise is arrogance. Your burden is only to try. Face your path with courage, and let come what may.”
My recommendation is this: if you’re a reader of character-driven or grimdark fantasy, get on this trilogy as soon as you can. There’s still one book left but I’m already confident enough to say that Ash and Sand is one of the next indie success stories in the making. Kings of Ash is an utterly magnificent sequel that made the already great Kings of Paradise pale in comparison. As far as grimdark fantasy goes, this definitely deserves a place in the big leagues. The last book of the series, Kings of Heaven, comes out next year, and I anticipate its arrival with much excitement.
Thank you to the author for putting my name in the acknowledgment section!