Esmay Rosalyne’s Spoiler-Free Review of The Trials of Ashmount by John Palladino
Publication date: 1 June 2022
Series: Book 1 in The Tragedy of Cedain
Genre: Grimdark Fantasy
Rating: 4.5 stars
Cedain is destined to collapse.
Across a world rife with blood, betrayal, and brutality, five people wade through unexpected tragedies.
An egotistical student, a fleeing refugee, a nomadic warrior, a fallen noble, and a criminal in hiding navigate the sinister dealings of politicians, two sudden wars, and nefarious lies that surface at Ashmount—a university dedicated to teaching the five branches of magic.
Survival means adapting or dying.
Review of The Trials of Ashmount
The Trials of Ashmount is the start to a new epic grimdark series called The Tragedy of Cedain. And holy shit, what a promising and exciting start this is! I mean, when the character list at the start of the book is titled ‘People Who May Die’, you know you are going to be in for a wild ride.
This story introduces us to the world of Cedain, which consists of five countries spread over three continents. And through the eyes of our five main POV characters, who are scattered all throughout these lands, we get to experience this dark and brutal world in all its glory. Things are incredibly tense from the get-go, because there are two conflicts brewing that are rapidly starting to escalate. Firstly, we have an impending war between some of these countries that is threatening the safety of anyone that gets caught up in it. And secondly, some long-kept secrets about the history and magic of this world are coming to light, which could completely destroy the current world order. Needless to say, I was captivated from page one.
The character work was definitely the main highlight of the book for me, because these characters just stole the show and every single storyline was so damn compelling. I mean, we have a young (slightly sociopathic) boy entering a magic school, a traumatised refugee, a nomadic warrior with a mysterious voice in his head, a slightly pathetic and very opportunistic fallen noble and a stuttering criminal Magicai on the run. Yeah, that’s quite the interesting and diverse cast, don’t you think? 😉
And in true grimdark fashion, these characters are not exactly what you’d call heroic or likeable. In fact, most of the people in this world are pretty messed up and make some very… questionable decisions. But that moral complexity is exactly what made them so fascinating to follow.
Also, each of these characters has a very strong personality and I often found myself very amused by their inner monologues or their interactions with other characters. It’s true that this book has quite a dark tone, but just like in Abercrombie’s works, that bleakness is counterbalanced by some really good (though admittedly dark and disturbing) humour. There were so many moments that made me chuckle, because these messed up characters are just so weirdly entertaining to follow.
Now, as is to be expected from the first book in a sprawling, epic fantasy series, there is quite a lot of set-up going on here. Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely a strong overarching plot, but it takes a while for all of the separate storylines to really start weaving together. I personally really loved that these characters’ individual journeys were the main driving force of the story here, because it allowed us to dive deep into their (messed up) psyches.
And honestly, I think it really pays off to just sit back and trust the author, because everything leads up to an extremely satisfying and thrilling conclusion. It was so impressive to me to see how certain decisions made by one character could cause ripple effects throughout the entire world and impact all the other characters’ lives in some way. Palladino truly is a masterful storyteller in my opinion!
The world building is also incredibly ambitious and impressive. The author has created a fascinating world that contains a multitude of rich and diverse cultures, deep history and lore, a tense political landscape, and a well-developed yet devastating magic system. And while the prose generally isn’t anything to write home about, I do have to say that I was very impressed with how well the author managed to evoke all the different settings that we encounter in this story. I tend to struggle with visualising while reading, but because the descriptions were so effective and vivid, I was completely immersed from start to finish.
Also, if you like magic that comes at a high cost, then look no further because the magic here is destructive and deadly. This book is just absolutely brutal on so many levels and I absolutely loved that none of the characters are ever truly safe. From page one, you will be filled with tension and anticipatory dread… and it’s a bloody brilliant feeling.
All in all, I am super impressed with this ambitious debut grimdark fantasy. If you are a fan of Abercrombie or George R.R. Martin and are desperately looking for something to fill the void while waiting for new works from them, then this is the perfect book to pick up. And, dare I say it,The Trials of Ashmount is what I was hoping The First Law would have been. They have similar vibes and the same excellent character work, but here you get an actual good plot and tons more intriguing magic.
So yeah, I highly recommend checking out this book, even if you are hesitant about grimdark, because I promise you don’t want to miss out on this exciting rollercoaster of a ride. I have now read this book twice and I can say with full confidence that this belongs on my list of all-time favourite books. I can’t wait to return to this world and characters in the future, because the capital C cliffhangers left me hungering for more in the best way possible! What a brilliant story.