Nathan’s Review of Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham
Publication Date: 15 February 2022
Series: Book 1 in the Kithamar Trilogy
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Pages: 448 pages
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.
From critically acclaimed, New York Times–bestselling author Daniel Abraham, co-author of The Expanse, comes a monumental epic fantasy trilogy that unfolds within the walls of a single great city, over the course of one tumultuous year, where every story matters, and the fate of the city is woven from them all.
Review of Age of Ash
Daniel Abraham’s new trilogy has a fascinating premise – each book in the series will be set in the same city (Kithamar) and at the same time, but will follow a different cast of characters and plot. Even after just reading the first book in this series I have fallen in love with this concept. Age of Ash strikes that perfect balance between having enough meat on the bone to keep you coming back (and eagerly anticipating the sequel) while also being a satisfying standalone story.
Age of Ash tells the story of Alys, a young thief who gets recruited into an organized thieving ring run by the mysterious Andromeka while also investigating the death of her brother. This sets up a sequence of events that explores the political and social underbelly of the city of Kithamar that stretches from the lowest petty thief to the king himself. This is a novel of family and loyalty, the downtrodden and the powerful.
Despite being a relatively short book (for the epic fantasy genre) the pacing in Age of Ash is measured. I wouldn’t call it slow by any means, but fans of Abraham’s The Long Price Quartet will feel right at home here. In his solo works Abraham doesn’t tend to be a flashy or action-forward author; rather, he likes to gently let the characters simply dwell in the world he crafts, contemplating their choices and managing the consequences of their own actions. What results is a book where big and dramatic things happen, but Abraham isn’t necessarily concerned about the events themselves, but how the characters respond to those events. At times this can make Abraham seem like a distant narrator who is telling the story from afar, but it also means that we are diving into how these characters work, but motivates them, and what personal and structural circumstances enhance and/or diminish their agency. Don’t enter into Age of Ash because you want the next big fantasy story, go into it because you want a quieter examination of so many things that make us human.
Abraham’s thematic explorations in this book are resonant, and I really appreciated how he was able to explore the inner lives of his characters without bombastic and over-the-top plot events. Abraham explores the importance of family (biological and found), the various ways that people experience grief, and overarching structures of oppression. These themes are not unique to the fantasy genre (particularly in modern fantasy), but Abraham handles them in a nuanced and character-driven way rather than making them front and center. Fantasy is my favorite genre because it allows commentary on the real world in slanted and skewed ways and this is a quietly political book that examines the relationship between the ruler and ruled, the ties between a nation and the physical space it occupies, and the underhanded and nefarious ways power is transferred.
And I also say this all while also wanting to make clear that things do happen in this book. At the beginning of the book Alys is running with a thieving gang, and the heists they pull off give the opening chapters a bit of a Locke Lamora vibe, while as the story progresses we are introduced to royal scandals, magical daggers, evil spirits, religious cults, and an over-arching force that determines the fate of Kithamar.
Character work has always been one of Abraham’s strong points, and I was interested going in to see how he would handle developing his characters in only one book. Usually, Abraham likes to take a longue durée approach where he slowly peels back the layers covering his characters over a long span of time. Here he only has this one self-contained story, and yet our street rat Alys, mysteriously villainous Andromeka, and the sweet-yet-strong Sammish (amongst many others) breathe with very real life on the page. At times you can definitely feel the tension of Abraham wanting to fall back into his old way of writing characters over a long span of time. For example, we don’t quite get as much backstory on some of the characters as I would have liked, and so it takes far too long in some cases to truly understand their motivations. I’m positive this will be ironed out in future installments of this series as Abraham has to do less worldbuilding and relaxes into these more standalone works.
I know that it is a bit of a fantasy reviewing cliche to say that “the setting is like a character itself”, but I do feel like that it’s accurate for me to say it here because it is kind of the entire premise of the series. Kithamar comes alive (in more ways than one, but I don’t want to get into spoilers!) through Age of Ash. Starting Age of Ash I was a tad disappointed that Kithamar is set in that faux Medieval/Rennaissance traditional fantasy setting after Abraham explored far more interesting settings in The Long Price Quartet and The Dagger and the Coin, but Abraham was able to breathe new life into what easily could have been a tired landscape. In just this first volume of the trilogy we get to see a wide range of the experiences of the city, from the royalty at the very top to Alys and her crew in the more downtrodden and disadvantaged Longhill neighborhood. Abraham vacillates between rich, vivid descriptions of the city and its inhabitants and taking a step back, letting the reader fill in the gaps and make Kithamar come alive with their own imaginations. There is absolutely nothing I love more than getting to explore a fantasy city, from the gritty undercity to the rich and opulent palaces. Abraham hits it all.
Now that I have finished Age of Ash not only I am excited to continue with the sequel (Blade of Dreams, coming out in Summer 2023), I cannot wait to return for an Age of Ash reread. One thing to note about Abraham’s works is that the early volumes in his series (see also The Long Price Quartet and The Dagger and the Coin) always read better in conversation with the later books. Of course, this means that sometimes beginning a new Daniel Abraham series can be a struggle because the importance of characters, events, and themes may not become apparent for another two, three, or even four books. Abraham absolutely loves to plant little plot seeds and nurture their growth over the course of a series. You can see that happening in Age of Ash where things that seem quite prominent (including the mysterious Daris Brotherhood) feel a bit underexplored and underdeveloped, while also feeling like a satisfying reading experience. I absolutely cannot wait to see how Abraham continues to expand the culture, politics, and peoples of Kithamar.
Concluding Thoughts: A quiet and measured entry into the epic fantasy genre, Age of Ash is yet another example of Abraham’s brilliant writing. This book works wonderfully as both an entry point into the city of Kithamar while also being a compelling and satisfying standalone experience. Themes of family, loyalty, and power persist throughout as readers get to explore Kithamar from several different angles, and the sequels are sure to reveal so much more about how this city works. There are some wonderful magical twists, and I cannot wait to see how they impact wherever Abraham is taking this story and this world.