Book Review: King of Ashes by Raymond E. Feist
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of The Firemane Saga
Publisher: Harper Voyager (May 8, 2018)
Length: 512 pages
I must preface this review with a confession: I had never read Raymond E. Feist before picking up King of Ashes, so I was going in with a completely blank slate and no pre-conceived notions of the author or the novel. What followed was a satisfying read, if a bit mundane and old hat at times. It seems to me that over the years, the genre has moved on from a lot of the ideas featured in this story. Nevertheless, I think it’s perfect for anyone seeking a fun traditional epic fantasy, and despite all the well-worn tropes, I enjoyed myself.
The book opens on a bloody scene as Baron Daylon Dumarch, a Free Lord, watches the execution of every single family member of the royal family of Ithrace. The monarch of what was once one of the five great kingdoms of North and South Tembria had just been betrayed by the other four kings in a brutal and decisive battle, signaling an end to the ancient covenant that had protected the peace and balance for centuries. Now King Lodavico of Sandura, the man at the head of the takeover, is determined to completely destroy the line of King Steveren of Ithrace, putting everyone with Firemane blood to the sword.
But in the chaos, a child was overlooked—a baby boy who was spirited away to safety in the confusion of battle. Daylon, who was close friends with Steveren, returns to his pavilion to rest after the executions, feeling sick for the part he played in the betrayal, even though he was forced to do it for the sake of his people. Waking up, he finds that someone had left a male infant in his quarters, and after seeing the boy’s fiery red hair, understands right away this must be the last surviving Firemane child and heir to the now ruined kingdom of Ithrace. Keeping the baby’s existence to himself, Daylon decides to entrust his care to the agents of the “Invisible Nation”, a secretive organization that trains highly skilled assassins and spies on their island of Coaltachin.
All this happens in the prologue, which is then followed by the beginning of the tale in earnest, picking up approximately sixteen years later. The Firemane baby has grown to become a hot-headed young man named Hatu, whose foreign physical traits have made him something of an outcast growing up in the south among other students at the school on Coaltachin. About half the story is told from his perspective, unfolding like a coming-of-age narrative about growing up, mastering his studies, and discovering the physical and emotional changes that come with adolescence. More and more, Hatu is also starting to notice his good friend Hava, who is the best fighter in her class, even though any romance between students is forbidden. Then there’s Declan, the other major perspective in this novel, who is the apprentice of a very talented blacksmith once in Baron Daylon Dumarch’s service. Readers get to meet Declan just as he has achieved master status, and circumstances have forced him to strike out on his own much sooner than he expected.
While there is a smattering of other POVs peppered throughout the novel, King of Ashes is mainly told through the eyes of these two young men—Hatu and Declan. For the most part, they are very archetypal characters, i.e. the lost heir and the bastard apprentice, and no doubt avid fantasy readers will have seen their like many times before. And yet, Feist prevents them from feeling too stale by keeping his story moving at an energetic pace. It’s rather common for first volumes of new epic fantasy series to become bogged down by the minutiae, taking forever to get started, but I was happy to see that this is not the case here.
In fact, I found that Feist could be downright frank in his writing style, cutting straight to the matter while leaving no room for subtlety. Everything is spelled out for the reader when it comes to his characters’ thoughts and motivations, and there is little finesse or attempt to show instead rather than tell. To be fair, this isn’t always bad; the writing is reminiscent of what I would call a classic or old-school style, in that it is very straightforward and easy to read. However, at times it made his characters feel flat and difficult to connect with, a prime example being Hatu when he was just becoming aware of his attraction to Hava. Their ensuing romance, if you could even call it that, felt awkward and forced, for you had the author laying out Hatu’s feelings with all the emotion of a dry clinical report. There’s a strong sense of “what you see is what you get” when it comes to the characters, placing them behind a layer of detachment which made it hard to feel invested in them.
Still, I enjoyed reading this book and discovering the world’s secrets. Characters like Daylon Dumarch are especially intriguing, since he is playing a long game. Now that the many threads of the story have converged in his barony, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen next. King of Ashes manages to set the stage marvelously for more to come, and I’m curious to see where Raymond E. Feist will take things in the sequel.