Daniel Abraham is probably best known at the moment as one half of sci-fi writing duo James SA Corey (The Expanse). But he did have a writing career long before that on the fantasy side of the speculative fiction ledger. In Age of Ash, first of a promised Kithamar trilogy, Abraham returns to a medieval fantasy setting.
Alys and Sammish are street rats, making their living as part of a pickpocketing crew. But when Alys’ big brother Darro is killed, the two are thrown into a larger, more dangerous world of city politics and destiny. Alys is determined to follow in her brother’s footsteps and becomes involved with a member of the city nobility who is trying to “restore balance” to the city after the death of the previous prince, a task which becomes both stranger and more clear as the plot progresses. Sammish, devoted to Alys, starts out trying to help but as Alys pulls away she finds herself on her own, contrary path.
Alys and Sammish are the heart of the book and both go on significant character journeys – Alys discovering what she is and is not capable of in going down her brother’s rabbit hole and Sammish finding her own power and agency. There is no really clear “good” or “bad” here as the two go down different paths but it is always clear that Alys and Sammish are pawns in larger agendas that they do not completely understand and cannot see the edges of. And while they often help push various wider plot threads forward it is hard not to think that many of the events would have turned out similarly (with some slight deviations and maybe a little less destruction) if they had not been involved.
The real star of Age of Ash, though, is the city of Kithamar. Abraham understands the city from its highest residences to its lowest hovels, the various suburbs, the racial makeup, and a long, rich history. There is the requisite map at the front of the book but the roads and buildings and bridges and byways are so well described throughout that there is little need to refer to it. And while the wider world is alluded to, the action and focus remains on the city and will for the next two volumes which are planned to cover the same time frame from different perspectives. So that the whole of the trilogy is likely to deliver a deeper and more complex picture of the city than any of its individual inhabitants.
Abraham dedicates this book to “the storytellers” and it is clear from Age of Ash that he knows how to spin a great yarn. But while Abraham does play with some interesting ideas this is fairly standard medieval fantasy with more than a hint of magic (or at least spirituality) and probably does not provide enough new that might entice readers who eschew the usual tropes of this sub-genre. For the rest though, there is plenty to enjoy and some intriguing threads left hanging for the rest of the series.