Note—I received this title in exchange for an honest review1
Okay! I’m a terrible person because I received this book to review about six weeks ago and I’ve only now got around to finishing it and consolidating my thoughts into a (somewhat) coherent review. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this book at first but I ended up really enjoying it, and wishing I’d signed up to read the second book too.
NOTE- After I originally published this review, the author contacted me about both letting me review the sequel (ah!) and some changes he had made to A Time of Ashes that actually fix my only true complaint about the book. For transparency, I’m including the complaint from my original review at the end of the review, but it is no longer included in the book, and as such no longer an issue. My review of the updated sections of the book are now included in the body of the review.
I’m not actually a huge fan of the cover. It’s nice, and well-made, but it seems a little generic for my tastes. This could be the cover for one of any fifty fantasy novels that I’ve read, I don’t think it does the complexity of A Time of Ashes justice
Before the Corruption came, Murrin Kentle lived in a world where the largest island could be walked across in a day, and humans traded and fished in bladeships made from the bones of the gigantic and bizarre sea monsters patrolling its stormy, bottomless oceans. As a truthkeep of the Brotherhood of the First Mind, it’s been his duty to fight the decay of knowledge with religious fervour. A fervour he’s increasingly struggled to maintain.
Before the Corruption came, Sheehan hahe Seeheeli was a carefree countess of the Shi’iin. Amphibious and matriarchal, her people have maintained an uneasy coexistence with the human scholars dominating the islands. Then an emissary of the gods brings news of an impending catastrophe. Now, she and Murrin must embark on a desperate voyage in the hope of salvation, although both the subject of their search and the path they must take remain stubbornly obscure.
Before the Corruption came, a wild young man named Coll grew up in a desert town, consumed by rage over what was done to his mother. His thirst for retribution will set in motion a train of events not even the gods could fully have foretold.
Now the Corruption is here, and nothing in Murrin’s world, nor any of the worlds of the Sundered Realm, will ever be the same.
BY TURNS TOUCHING, humorous, tense and horrific, with elements of fantasy, SF and steampunk, A Time of Ashes is a thrilling and wildly imaginative tale of existential discovery: the first part of Fate and the Wheel, a beautifully written epic tale of friendship, loss, revenge, war, and survival against crushing odds.
The worlds-building2 in this novel was incredible. Homollon’s species (with a long complicated name my brain always skips over) and the Shi’iin were fully realised, and I enjoyed the way the different senses and capabilities of the Shi’in were never forgotten about. A myriad of cultures was presented, and the way the threat driving the plot was explored while world-building and revealing character motivation and backstory was very impressive. It reminded me of classic Anne McCaffrey, with hints of Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series.
Characterisation is another strength of A Time of Ashes; archetypes are definitely present, but done right. Characters are enriched by their similarity to universal figures, rather than reduced to them. Murrin could easily have been a mentor/wiseman, but instead he’s a flawed, three dimensional character that you don’t always agree with but usually have sympathy for.
Coll was by far my favourite character in the book, his typical hero’s backstory and anything-but-typical response to it was one of the most enjoyable parts of the novel for me (and his partnership with Homollon is something I hope will be explored in greater depth in further books). Oliént cannot be overlooked when we’re discussing characterisation. The man undoubtedly has the potential to be a marvellous and epic villain, and his characterisation and storyline (complete with an amoral, hyper-competent advisor) remind me a little of the God-king Brent Weeks’ Way of Shadows series3, and even a little of Vetinari from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series4.
Seeli was another amazing character, and her sister provides a nice foil that manages to neatly solve the issue I have with a lot of science fiction, ie making an alien species homogenous to a ridiculous extent. That is not an issue here, Seele and Sheehan have a realistic sisterly relationship5, and both standalone as complete characters while also beeing distinctly Shi’in.
The character list in this book is large, there’s no getting around that. A number of interesting characters left before my interest in them had diminished (I liked Tolin, and Nirite deserved more page time! I want to know more about her and the Sisterhood!), but given the already lengthy nature of the book, I understand why. Other characters (like Oliént) were introduced at an unusually late stage of the story, though this may have been why he immediately captured my interest. No one insignificant is getting introduced two thirds of the way through a novel.
Now that you know why I liked the book, lets discuss the parts of it that I didn’t. My only criticism is that the book seems a little rough around the edges. This doesn’t effect readability, I absolutely want to read the next book in the series—but overall it seems like the focus was more on writing a good beginning to a series than writing a good book in its own right. That seems harsh, but all of my complaints are minor ones that I doubt the average reader would notice or care about. If I weren’t writing this review immediately after reading the book, I doubt I’d remember any of them6.
The beginning of the book feels a tiny bit spoon fed, the characters are told what’s happening and what to do, relationships are explained in as many words, and plot hasn’t had enough time to catch up with the world-building. A lot of characters and concepts are introduced, without much context about why the reader should care. Readers of high fantasy or classic sci fi will know to power through, but it could be enough to make a more casual fan of the genre/s lose interest. Don’t!
There are actually a few moments where the book seems more like connected scenes than a unified story—Coll joining forces with Soren off-page being the most jarring of these. A Time of Ashes also seems to repeat plot devices. That’s fine, most authors have preferred ways of exploring or resolving conflict. In this book, though, the incidents occur too closely to seem truly meaningful, and it makes the action (which is well written and engrossing) seem predictable. For example: a group of characters is in a seemingly hopeless situation, it drags on, uncertainty creeps in, and then—a glimmer of hope in the darkness! A slim opportunity for safety is glimpsed, the characters strive for it, everyone thinks they’re going to die, but by the skin of their teeth, they manage to survive.
A standard situation in fiction, granted, but when it happens to three separate groups of characters back to back, it seems trite. Again, the writing was great, all three scenarios were compelling writing—their placement so close together in the novel is what made the action seem played out.
While I’m on the topic of pacing and other very vague complaints, I don’t like the way the story ended. The ‘scary’ reveal at the end (presumably a hook to make sure you read the next book) was hinted at so heavily earlier in the book that the impact it should have had was lost. The preceding section of the book, with the almost-cliff-hanger ending about the safety of a main character would make a far more suitable ending.
Overall, A Time of Ashes was an engrossing read that I’d recommend for any fans of classic sci fi or fantasy. The world-building is on par with the best I’ve read, and the characters are familiar without being any less compelling. If any of the above review interested you and you’re looking for a satisfying, well-written read that will make you want to get the next book in the series as soon as possible, look no further.
1 By the way, I promise I won’t always review books at the request of an author/publisher, in fact, only about half of my reviews have been. Competence, Vicious, Vengeful, Zero Sum Game and Into the Drowning Deep are all books I’ve reviewed on here of my own volition, just to assure you that this blog is my honest thoughts and opinions on the books that I read. I’d normally link to those reviews, but that would be an annoying amount of blue text for you to read. If you’re interested in reading any of them, they’re in the Categories tab under Reviews (okay, that one was a link)
2 Not a typo! Hopefully not too much of a spoiler, either
3 Definitely a compliment
4 Even more definitely a compliment
5Somehow still a rarity in fiction
6 And indeed, as I’ve returned to update my review, the ‘issues’ I had with the book have faded with time, but I still remember and love the worlds and characters
NO LONGER RELEVANT ISSUE WITH PREVIOUS VERSION
My only real complaint about A Time of Ashes is the way a character who was explicitly stated to be the equivalent of a fifteen-year-old girl was repeatedly put in sexual situations. She takes a lover, she flirts with a main character, and she is treated as ‘competition’ by a grown woman. It’s creepy, I didn’t like it, and it could so easily have been avoided. Make her older! She could still be young and foolishly bold without also being ‘jailbait’. The whole situation was off-putting, and is probably one of the reasons I took so long to get invested in the book. I appreciated that the character herself discusses her behaviour and has believable, age-appropriate motivations for doing so, but the situation is still one I wish hadn’t been included in the book.