Are you the type of person that gets down on a high realism tabletop RPG? Maybe you read Wikipedia articles of living conditions in medieval Budapest for fun? If so, Age of Ash is an upcoming novel from The Expanse co-author Daniel Abraham and it is for you.
Much like The Expanse, Age of Ash is an incredible exercise in realistic and detailed world building. The city of Kithamar is grounded in reality and light on magic. It is described in exacting detail and depth over the course of the year the story takes. We talk a lot in literature about places being characters and Abraham has certainly taken this as a challenge. You get the sense that the story playing out among the characters is tiny against the vastness that is Kithamar. The sense of time in this book is that of an ancient entity of a centuries old city, not the artificially fast plot of a novel. There are weeks or sometimes months between dramatic moments. The first half of the book is almost all build-up, with Abraham adding detail after detail that don’t seem like they will come together. Incredibly enough, though, they do.
The second half of the book is exciting with the last quarter being a straight up page turner. Reading Age of Ash feels not unlike staring at a pile of boards and screws that somebody has assured you “Don’t worry, it’ll be a desk.” For a while it feels like there’s no way all these pieces could come together or that you’ll find a place for every screw but somehow it does. Not only that, but it looks great.
While the characters do feel small in the shadow of Kithamar, the standout for me was Sammish, whose resourcefulness and quiet unrequited love for her friend Alys make her a wonderful POV character. Alys, while ostensibly the main character, fell a little flat for me although part of that is related to a spoilery thing I won’t say here. What I can say is that Alys spends a lot of the book trying to be somebody else, but because we don’t have a good handle on who she is in the first place it doesn’t pack the punch it should. The heavy realism really comes in with the day to day activities of Alys and Sammish. Sure they’re out playing parts in the fate of Kithamar, but in between they have to run odd jobs to have enough to eat and a place to stay. Most people from their impoverished district of Longhill are staving off starvation day by day, gathering garbage, bones, body fluids, and other unsavoury work for pennies at a time. Characters become pawns of the city’s elite, not just because they get swept up in it, but also because it pays well.
Age of Ash is the first novel of a planned trilogy set in the series and Abraham has clearly spent a lot of time envisioning every detail and moment of Kithamar’s history. As a self-professed glossary reader I do wish at times that there was more lore because there are such excellent little dangled tidbits that I want background on. Characters casually say things like “The river is hungry” and imply that the river steals souls but is that superstition, actual magic or some combination? Actual magic and fantasy elements are very light on the ground in Age of Ash but just present enough to make the question of magic always there. It almost turns looking for magic into a bit of a treasure hunt, leaving you wondering about the origins of many different elements.
A real boon in this book’s favour is that it seems like it should be more confusing than it is. I read this as a “here and there” read where I picked it up a couple times a week until I got to the last third and smashed it out. And while Kithamar is deep and detailed, I never had too much trouble remembering who was who and what was happening. That is not something I take lightly, it takes a very careful balance to both build a world and not get your readers completely lost in it. So while I never thought it would be an option to recommend this as a casual read I think it’s very doable.
Age of Ash comes out on February 15, 2022. Thanks to Orbit for providing us with an advanced reader copy.