Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Publish date: 15th February 2022 (Orbit)
Alys is just another nobody from Longhill, a gutter rat relying on ‘pulls’ to survive. Each theft wins her little more than enough to keep a roof over her head and food in her belly, the spoils shared between disparate players, together only for the sake of the job. Her big brother Darro, on the other hand, is running far bigger plays. The high-stakes kind that might help him escape this low-born world. That brings in gold. That gets him killed. Losing the only family she cares about puts Alys on a path of revenge. Desperate to find out who killed him and why, she finds herself playing a very dangerous game with people who know far more about the city than she does. As she starts to lose herself to the chase, Alys must decide how far she’s willing to go to avenge her dead brother, especially when she’s not the only one who’ll be paying the price for her success…
There are mysteries, and there is beauty in them. In this way, Kithamar is a beautiful city.
Now, the real winner of this book is not Alys or any of the other characters, it is Kithamar itself. I didn’t realise until I finished the book that the series was going to be connected through the city rather than the individuals in the novel, but it does make the heightened focus on the setting make more sense. It is clear that the city is sunlight bright in the author’s mind, a place painstakingly developed and offered to the reader with loving enthusiasm. It’s not just that the setting is thoroughly detailed, though it is, but the reader is given a sense of tradition and community that add meaning to the ways in which people live and die, how they celebrate and mourn. For this, the author deserves all the praise. It is a rare talent to be able to create such a truly livid-in place, one that seems worn.
Kithamar is an unforgiving city. The common wisdom states that it was founded on hatred, but this is a misunderstanding. In truth, it was founded on hunger, and there are many kinds of hunger at its heart.
And yet, I didn’t care about the city, because I didn’t care about the characters. They are ephemeral, little more than blips in the city’s long record. They make the barest of impressions and now that I know they really don’t matter in terms of the series, I feel even less like there was any point to them at all. Sure, they do make a difference here. Perhaps. If you believe that this small moment would, or even could, affect such a place as Kithamar in the long term.
It’s difficult to evaluate when the narrative felt bereft of focus. There are rich people with some kind of agenda, but save some ill-defined darkness, the consequences of them getting what they want or not was never truly addressed. Some people died. Some didn’t. The city continues. There was no tension to any of it. As a reader, you watch Alys struggle though her pain and make some choices. Perhaps, for some, that might be enough, her journey to understanding and some kind of freedom. For me, her story felt suffocated by the larger narrative of the eternal city. Alys was not nearly enough to hold it all together, she’s too distant. All of them are, their personalities washed thin by the colour of the city itself.
As much as I appreciate the worldbuilding skill on show in Age of Ash, Abraham fails to match it with plot and characterisation. Not a series I’ll continue.
ARC via publisher