***Content warnings for death of a sibling, violence, injury, murder, poverty, bloodletting, self harm and neglect (mentions)***
I love me a good city. Especially in a fantasy setting. One of my favourite tropes/devices an author can use is making the a city setting a character of it’s own. N.K Jemisin and New York as one example, or Edinburgh by T.L Huchu. Daniel Abraham’s new series aims to establish Kithamar among these great cities. This did however, lack the vibrancy I think it needs to be one.
Kithamar is a center of trade and wealth, an ancient city with a long, bloody history where countless thousands live and their stories unfold.
This is Alys’s.
When her brother is murdered, a petty thief from the slums of Longhill sets out to discover who killed him and why. But the more she discovers about him, the more she learns about herself, and the truths she finds are more dangerous than knives.
Swept up in an intrigue as deep as the roots of Kithamar, where the secrets of the lowest born can sometimes topple thrones, the story Alys chooses will have the power to change everything.
I will start this review off with staying the only other work by Abraham I have read has been the Expanse and even then I have only read the first book. And I’m aware he is working on it with another author. With that disclaimer out of the way, I really can see the appeal for his writing. This book had a really tight plot, made use of all the points of view in an excellent way and really tied up Alys’s story well at the end. That however is all I can say that kept me engaged.
We start the book with what is essentially the end. The death of a royal, Kithamar established as the huge monolith it is and with Alys as she waits. So one of my main issues with the book was Alys as a main protagonist. The story has multiple points of view and that definitely works best with a story setting out to be this vast. We also get Sammish, Andomaka, Darro and others later in the book I won’t reveal for spoiling the story. Each of those I had a distinct empathy for or interest in Sammish mostly but still each one had me wanting to know more. Alys was the one I had the least interest in.
I commented already on the writing and that is at some of it’s best with the characters. Especially their arcs as the story progresses, the main focus on Sammish and Alys. Both of these girls are grieving very deeply in different ways. Sammish is in love with Alys and she is in that bittersweet part of love where she is beginning to understand Alys isn’t going to return her feelings but she is desperately hoping it still might happen. Alys mean while is left absolutely adrift at the death of her brother Darro, going so much as to assume the threads of his life to try and keep him alive and grief at bay. She is confronted as well a lot when she is at her more selfish parts of the process and how her determination to be him while also figuring out who killed him does harm to others. But I still couldn’t really pull for her as much as Sammish who by far I cared a lot about. Especially as she took on more for Alys and their crumbling friendship. I’m unsure what might have me that way but it did make the read a bit less than it should have been.
When it comes to the plot and the world building, this book does shine a lot better. There is a lot of political intrigue as the story unfolds and that is some of my favourite elements in fantasy. It is at it’s weaker as the story goes, the plot maintaining your interests as things do get more tense. But I did find the more court related politics were settled as that happened in the story, so it felt a bit imbalanced but it does tie up really well at the end of the book.
The world itself is the best part however. You can really feel the scale of Kithamar after a while, it’s a massive city with very distinct personality as you travel each sector. I read this as a proof but my finished copy arrived on release day so I did get to double check the map to get an idea of all the travelling Alys or Sammish were doing and it is big distances. Kithamar feels like a really grimy, typical city that we see only the ugly side of. Alys, Sammish among many others live in abject poverty in Longhill. The only real part of the city not kept in it is Greenhill, where the roads are clean and people are wealthy. Alys summarises it at one point;
‘No one did only one thing, because no one thing could bring in enough to live off.’
People turn to sex, begging, running crime or ‘pulls’ to stay alive. Houses or rooms aren’t rented so much as just beds in different establishments. A thousand ways to earn money every day but harder it makes it to stay alive. The true reality of Kithamar, like many a city is the people who keep it are those who suffer the most and I really liked that aspect of the book.
I do think as the trilogy is published and more stories and parts of the city are established, the true genius of what Abraham has planned will become apparent. But I still think this book, as a first book especially, should at least be able to stand on it’s own for readers to get a better sense of it’s potential. But I would recommend this for sure as a start to a series and if you like any of the elements I mentioned above. I look forward to what it brings.
Thank you to Nazia and Orbit Books for sending me this for review, Age of Ash is out now!