Backstreet Ploys

- Dave Bradley

There’s a lostheir-to-thethrone narrative lurking behind the capers


448 pages | Hardback/ebook/audiobook Author Daniel Abraham

Publisher Orbit Books

Welcome to Kithamar, ancient city on the river Khahon, home to plague and pickpocket­s. Daniel Abraham builds this world with all the confident craftsmans­hip you’d expect from an author with his pedigree. With four novels in the series The Long Price and five in The Dagger And The Coin on his CV, not to mention a bunch of collaborat­ions with titan George RR Martin, Abraham is no newcomer to fantasy fiction. But you probably know him better as half of James SA Corey – this is one of the guys behind The Expanse. So hang on to your cloak and dagger, Kithamar is in the hands of a pro.

The story is set almost entirely within the walls of this Londonalik­e, with its Oldgate rising over silt banks. The existence of a quarantine quarter (where nobody quite agrees on what the sickness does to you) feels both timeless and also relevant to our recent Covid-19 climate.

We follow two viewpoint characters: Alys and Sammish, young women from the rough part of town. Alys’s brother is killed and she sets out to discover why, adopting his underworld lifestyle to keep his memory alive, and learning some disturbing truths about the city in the process. Her friend Sammish lands on the opposite side of a secret civil war as she follows her own investigat­ion in the slums. There’s a lost-heir-to-the-throne narrative lurking behind the picaresque capers. With its cast of footpads that stumble into an epic conflict, it brings to mind recent streetleve­l fantasies like Priest Of Bones and The Moonsteel Crown.

Of course, it’s the characters who make Age Of Ash memorable. Kithamar’s inhabitant­s are vividly drawn and likeable despite their flaws, and there’s a powerful female energy throughout. The major figures shaping the lives of the main protagonis­ts are women, from the sinister Andomaka to Alys’s impoverish­ed mother. There are at least two mums lamenting the loss of sons in Age Of Ash, making grief a dark thread from page to page. The murdered Darro casts a long shadow, and he is constantly referred to, a boyshaped gap in their lives.

Sometimes the narrative flips rapidly between Alys and Sammish, but they have distinct perspectiv­es, and although the path they’re on – separation then reunion – feels inevitable, it’s earned and unforced. The plot slots together logically, with early details becoming important later and everyone’s motivation making sense, even if a lot of the action hinges around the chasing down of a ritual knife – pure Macguffin. Occasional magic feels fresh and suitably eerie, and there are flashes of poetic language that bring Kithamar to life (you have to love the nostalgic effectiven­ess of describing a green so bright it looked “false as a child’s memory of leaves”).

It’s not perfect. Alys and Sammish each sit through an exposition dump, giving you a couple of clumsy moments about halfway through where secondary characters sit them down to explain what the heck is going on. And one of the few male villains is covered in thick scars, his outer wounds a clichéd trope; we can forgive the “damaged outside equates to damaged inside” shorthand given his slowlyreve­aled vulnerabil­ity.

If you’re looking for parallels with The Expanse, you’ll find some similar themes. There’s the way it opens like a noir mystery, then turns towards political intrigue. There’s friction between the classes: the workers defiant against the Green Hill politician­s. But Age Of Ash stands on its own as a fun fantasy adventure. It doesn’t end with a huge battle like grimdark fantasies tend to, but instead climaxes with a fire and a final study of grief and survival that sets the scene very nicely for future instalment­s.

Abraham will be teaming up with Ty Franck again to write another space opera trilogy, unrelated to The Expanse.

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