A structural experiment that doesn’t quite work out
|Jacket design by Lauren Panepinto
|; Jacket art by Daniel Dociu
This is what Abraham is aiming to do with the first two books of his Kithamar trilogy. The first, Age of Ash, was a solid introduction to the city of Kithamar, characterized primarily by its very sensitive exploration of how grief can cause people to do unhinged, ill-thought-out, usefully plot-advancing things. Alys, a street crook from the poorest district of Kithamar, learns that her brother has been killed carrying out some shady plot. Fuzzy-headed with grief and rage, and lacking the kind of social—or indeed physical—safety net that might support less impoverished and desparate people through such a terrible time, she sets herself to discover what her brother was up to, and why he got killed. Her only help comes from the well-meaning efforts of her friend Sammish, who is equally impoverished and desperate, and who helps Alys because she nurses a hopeless romantic flame in her bosom that, it’s clear, will never be returned.
Through a series of blundering, unwise, and entirely believable actions, Alys finds herself wrapped in the same threads that wound her brother to his death, threads that she willingly entangles herself in, because to understand what happened to her brother she must take on his role in the world. Yet these same entanglements, however well (or poorly) they tie her to her brother’s memory, alienate Sammish, who finds herself working against Alys's adopted goals, undertaking actions on her own initative, motivated by her own moral compass in a way that Alys is incapable of doing. As Alys becomes progressively more isolated, she undertakes progressively more reckless actions, and events build and develop in extremely satisfying ways. Alys's journey through her grief, and her emotional arc as she comes to terms with what her brother was, and what she is becoming, is executed beautifully and skillfully, in a way that I don’t think I’ve seen done in this way in all my years of devouring SFF as a genre.
Intercutting this character arc is a broad plot that is much more workmanlike: An evil entity has haunted Kithamar for generations, but it requires a certain maguffin to complete its plans. Mystical opponents work against it, a stranger comes to town, the ruling family gets up to unthinking hijinks that interfere with the evil influence’s plans, and Alys and Sammish are tangled up in the thick of it.
Age of Ash ends with a temporary—but by no means permanent—setback to the entity's schemes, leaving open multiple avenues for it to pursue its evil plans and advance the plot further. Yet the ending doesn’t feel like a cliffhanger, because Alys and Sammish’s contributions to the story are tied up quite beautifully, in ways that are true to their characters and their character arcs. I was contented to finish with their stories when I finished the book. The trilogy is not about them as characters; they simply inhabited the first book and helped nudge the events to the next stage.
This is why Blade of Dream, the second book in the series, simply did not work for me. Because in Blade of Dream, events do not proceed to the next stage. We go back to the beginning again. Structurally, it’s clear what it’s intended to do. It relates the same events from Age of Ash, taking place over the course of the year, starting with the death of one ruler, old Prince Ausai, and ascension of his heir, and ending with the death of the second ruler and the ascension of a third. But the same events of this turbulent year are now related from a different set of perspectives. Rather than viewing the titanic struggles for control of the city from the perspective of street rats Alys and Sammish, now we see it from the perspective of the wealthy, the royal.
The problem with this structural exercise, though, is that we don’t really learn anything new. The events of Age of Ash were not unclear or mysterious. They were pretty straightforward by the end. I knew what the maguffin did; who opposed it; why the various participants in the power struggle did the things they did. Seeing all of the same events from the other side didn’t shed any new light or overset any old understandings. The same characters appear and do the same things, and nothing changes the second time round. As just one example, in Age of Ash, Alys is ordered to kill a canoodling couple, and we see the event unfold from her perspective. In Blade of Dream, we see the same sequence from the perspective of the canoodlers. But nothing was gained by revisiting the event. The canoodling couple did not do anything unexpected or enlightening; they were not privately advancing the plot in any way before they were interrupted by assassins. They were canoodling. Then Alys arrived. And I already knew what was going to happen, so there was no drama or suspense about it. You shouldn’t be bored by assassination attempts in your books, and I was bored. That’s a bad sign.
Perhaps there are balls set in motion in Blade of Dream that I’m not seeing, because they’re still rolling quietly into position. It’s not impossible. Abraham is a very fine writer, with a wonderful grasp on setting and character and complex social and political machinations. Don’t forget that he’s one half of James S. A. Corey, author of The Expanse, which set a new bar for modern space opera. (Also don’t forget that he’s written two outstanding fantasy series before now—The Long Price Quartet and The Dagger and the Coin—which I cannot recommend highly enough.) Possibly Kithamar will explode into the brilliance of a structural long game when Book 3 rolls around. I certainly plan to read it.
But the fact remains that Abraham wrote a rather dull, repetitive Book 2 while he heaved those balls into position. I sincerely hope that Book 3 makes my patience worth it. But if it begins with the same death of Old Prince Ausai, and I have to slog through that same year a third time over, I’ll be very annoyed.
Nerd coefficient: 6/10: still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore
- Beautiful emotional arcs (book 1)
- Very well-developed city-as-character
- Repetitive structural conceit
CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on Mastodon at wandering.shop/@ergative.
Abraham, Daniel. Age of Ash. [Orbit 2022]
Abraham, Daniel. Blade of Dream. [Orbit 2023]