Age of Ash is a great new fantasy book from the coauthor of The Expanse

Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham. Cover courtesy of Orbit Books.
Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham. Cover courtesy of Orbit Books. /

Daniel Abraham may be best known these days for his work on The Expanse, which he writes under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey alongside fellow author Ty Franck, but he’s got plenty of other books out there as well. He’s finished two epic fantasy series to date: The Long Price Quartet and The Dagger and the Coin, as well as written a Star Wars tie-in novel, a series of urban fantasy books under the pen name M.L.N. Hanover, various novellas, collaborations with George R.R. Martin, and far too many other works to go about listing here.

Abraham’s latest book, Age of Ash, marks his return to writing epic fantasy novels on his own after his long and successful stint coauthoring The Expanse. It’s the first book in a new series called The Kithamar Trilogy, which explores fantasy in a way we’ve never quite seen before. We’re going to tell you a bit about that, as well as why we loved this book so much below.

This is a spoiler-free review, so read on without fear of having this book’s twists ruined. Trust us, you don’t want that.

Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham. Image courtesy of Orbit Books.
Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham. Image courtesy of Orbit Books. /

Age of Ash review

Some books beat you over the head with their awesomeness, pulling you through pulse-pounding action scenes and constantly upping the stakes until you feel like you’re going to pull your hair out from how tense the proceedings have grown. They read almost like tentpole movies; simple prose, straight-forward if exciting plots, reveals that make you shout, “I knew it!”, and so on.

Age of Ash is not one of those books.

Oh, it’s a fantastic book, well-written, expertly plotted, and filled with vivid settings and fleshed out characters. With Daniel Abraham at the wheel, all that should basically go without saying. But Age of Ash is a subtler experience, one which slowly worms its way into your brain until you can’t stop thinking about it. I finished this book weeks ago, but I still regularly catch myself mulling over some of the larger plot points and wondering at how thoroughly I fell for the story’s central twist. Age of Ash doesn’t brazenly shout its awesomeness from rooftops; it doesn’t need to. Instead, it tells an exceedingly solid story that forces you to think about its themes and ideas. Ultimately, it makes this book feel unique even while many things about it appear familiar.

A huge part of that is the premise. Age of Ash takes place in the fantasy city of Kithamar, a bustling metropolis filled with thieves, politicians, and stark social divides. Unlike most other fantasy series, which are simply longer stories cut up into multiple books, Kithamar takes a single turbulent year of upheaval in the city and then examines those events from different angles. Age of Ash is told primarily from the point of view of two thieves trying to survive their desperate situation, but future books will explore these same events from vastly different perspectives. It allows the author to tell a complete story that wraps up major character arcs in a very satisfying way. Since we know that the next two books will more or less follow this pattern of being a full story, it seems likely that each book will be satisfying in its own right, but also build into something bigger through the mosaic nature of the series.

At first, the setting and tone of Age of Ash felt almost too familiar. The idea of a fantasy city where thieves run pulls on unsuspecting passersby is something that the genre has done before and done quite wellbut that familiarity only exists to lull you into a false sense of security. Kithamar itself is a central part of the narrative — that much should be obvious even from the structure of the story. But how it becomes central is something I feel safe saying it would be very difficult to predict. There’s a certain twist that occurs about halfway through the book, and once you hit it, it changes everything. Seemingly innocuous lines of description become laden with meaning; the lines between hero, villain, and something else entirely become blurred almost beyond recognition. I’ve rarely read a book that so thoroughly changed the game in such an unexpected way.

Characters and theme in Age of Ash

Settings and premise are all good and fine, but what about the characters? As I mentioned, Age of Ash primarily follows a pair of thieves: Alys and Sammish. The inciting event that kicks off their story is that Alys’ brother is killed. Once she discovers that he was involved in something far larger and more dangerous than she’d imagined, she becomes convinced he was murdered and recruits Sammish to help her unravel the mystery.

I wasn’t quite as gripped by Alys herself as I expected to be; she’s one of those protagonists who can be equal parts enjoyable or frustrating, depending on where she is in her emotional arc. Sammish, on the other hand, totally surprised me. I found myself looking forward to her chapters. Between the two of them, Age of Ash felt pretty well-balanced on the character front, although I will say that I’m very much looking forward to reading about the groups of characters who will be central to the following entries in the series. This book felt like it was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the series’ larger narrative, and there were enough hints about what those other plotlines might revolve around that I only expect it to get better from here.

Grief and the inability to move on are central themes in Age of Ash, largely conveyed through Alys’ struggle to come to grips with her brother’s death. Abraham handles this in a realistic way, exploring these emotions and the effects they can have not only on one person, but everyone around them. While no one really goes into a book thinking, “yes, I shall read this for its thematic depth,” I feel it worth mentioning that the thematic work is strong here. Being able to move on, to lay the past to rest, is explored not just through Alys but in several other unexpected ways throughout the book. The result is that Age of Ash is a thought-provoking read, perhaps the most thematically consistent book I’ve read since Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes.

If any of the things I’ve said here have scared you, that’s fair. Not everyone likes to read books that have heady explorations of themes or feature complex story structures. But despite all those elements, Age of Ash remains a relatively accessible read that tells a full and satisfying story, albeit one that leaves the door open for the sequels. “I think a story should be as simple and straightforward as it can be. But I also don’t think it should be simpler than it can be,” Daniel Abraham told us in a recent interview. That hits the nail on the head for this book so far as I’m concerned.

Age of Ash is an easy book to understand and follow…but once you delve beneath its surface, there’s far more to it than it first appears. Just like Kithamar.

The verdict

Age of Ash is a tale of grief and love and how struggle can force us into places we’d never expect, told with the precision we’d expect from Daniel Abraham. When you factor in the unique structure of the series and the absolutely jaw-dropping way that the novel’s twists reframe everything, it becomes the kind of story that will follow you around and force you to remember it. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and will be eagerly snapping up the next entry in The Kithamar Trilogy as soon as it drops.

Age of Ash is available now from Orbit Books.

Next. Exclusive: Daniel Abraham talks new novel Age of Ash and The Expanse. dark

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