Thursday, January 11, 2024

Novella Project: Ashes of the Ancestors by Andrew Knighton

A gothic delight that focuses on a singular moment in a greater set of events.

Novellas can choose to do an awful lot with their shorter format. Some go fully into being about the character(s), like Iori Kusano's Hybrid Heart, while others, like Andrew Knighton's Ashes of the Ancestors, instead limit the scope of their story to a short moment not just in time, but in narrative significance. And it is precisely this limiting of scope that makes it such a successful and interesting novella.

The story follows Magdalisa, a novice in service in a temple to the saints, those whose spirits have been preserved in death because of their glories, greatness or exemplification of ideals during their life, available in eternity to provide advice and wisdom to supplicants. Alone, the last in the temple, Magdalisa makes sure things run smoothly for them, at the beck and call of her immortal, saintly superiors. But when two new novices join her in the temple, everything changes.

"Everything changes". Such a common phrase to find in blurbs, in synopses of stories, a tantalising hint that from the prologue described, a whole wealth of action will unfold. But here, instead, it isn't prologue at all. The story is the story of the change. A brief tale, but an intensely focussed one, dispensing of anything that does not serve the meaning of that turning point.

As such, we get, purely in terms of words on page and reading time, very little in the way of worldbuilding, of scene-setting. And yet I never felt the lack of it. Knighton has a deft way of crafting his setting, using short-hands and evoking ideas, without having to spend sentence after sentence on spelling it out for you. If I go back and think on what he's actually told us, it's very little. But in the moment of reading, it is absolutely enough to give you the feel you need to understand the world, at least as it affects the story being told. Do I know what this world is? Where it is? The cities and trades and geographies and landscapes of it? No. I see only a small town, a temple, and the references outside of those two that imply for me that there is more. But each of those implications is carefully, skillfully done to evoke so much. We don't actually need to see beyond the temple, beyond the town, to believe in that wider world. We don't need a map with the names of rivers and mountains the story never visits to believe they exist. What we need to see - and what we absolutely do see - is how that wider world affects the environment of the story. We know there are provinces, because we know about the warlord who conquered them, coming to her final rest in the temple. We know about different climates, because the characters talk about where their food comes from. We know about the technology levels by watching them fix it when it breaks. Each time, we get exactly what we need for the feel of a vaster, more joined up, more deeply realised world, and so, in the moment, as that need serves the story, we believe it. And for me, that's all it needs, that feel.

And, likewise, this spare approach serves the characters very well. We see the story through the perspective of Magdalisa only, and so our understanding of the other characters is through her eyes, but there are enough hints, enough moments of dialogue just so, that we do get a sense of who the others are. It's not the deepest character study of any story ever written, of course it's not. But once again, it is absolutely sufficient for feel, to give the sense of a depth we don't need to explore, just trust exists.

That being said, we do get some of that actual depth exploration for Magdalisa herself. She's intensely sympathetic, someone who has spent years alone with only the dead and her work for company, chained to her own dead in the past, both in terms of how it brought her to her current existence, and also in her thoughts - there is a deeply touching theme throughout the story of how working stone, a craft taught to her by her stonemason father, brings back her memories of him. The act of chisel on rock evokes, even after years, both the memory and the feeling in her, in a way that is intensely relatable to anyone with fondly remembered dead.

She also has a charming, naive, easy to love internal monologue, full of the fussiness of someone having to adapt to dealing with other humans, and the conflicted feelings of them being the solution to a loneliness she barely admits to. And so much of this comes through in her actions, her moments of doubt, her dialogue with the others, little snippets again doing sterling service in implying greater whole. We get enough of her history, in her little reflections on it, that her present is brought into sharp, contextualised relief, and her actions given the weight of experiences we haven't seen, but know were there.

But it is not only a story about Magdalisa. It is also about empire, about legacy and tradition, and what we should - or should not - hold onto. And at what cost. Knighton uses the dead, the sainted and revered souls considered the best of their people, as a way to examine how empire views and sustains itself, how it uses history to perpetuate itself, in the face of a thousand years of marching time, and even death. He asks - what purpose tradition? And gives a genuinely nuanced answer. Because this isn't a book solely saying "burn it all down" - though there are many great examples of just that. It is also a book that asks why it matters to those who cling to it, and not just those whom tradition cynically serves. Through Magdalisa, he shows us what people think and feel, when they hold onto things past the point of their purpose and benefit, and has sympathy with them... even as the narrative adds its voice to those crying for change.

It is also a story that uses religion incredibly well, in a way that many fantasy stories... do not. There is often a real difficulty - the gods in the story may be tangible, but the apparatus of religion and belief feels a shadow of its real world counterparts, bereft of the things that give it meaning and make it something people keep in their lives. Here - very much the reverse. While there is the literal benefit, the tangible part, where supplicants come and receive direct wisdom from the saints, we see through Magdalisa the emotional part too, the comfort, or perhaps more the support, her faith has brought her in the past, even as we see the flaws. However much it may not be something we fully endorse in the form we see it in the story, we can understand why it has persisted, what people take from it, what meaning it has. It feels like something that might truly exist, and something that understands people, and what binds them together.

And again, Knighton has done this in brief, careful but evocative moments, everything crafted to serve the wider whole of the story. A temple that has lasted a thousand years of supplicants would only do so if there was something that made it work for them, something that held them to it, generation after generation. We need to believe in that, to believe in this little moment of the narrative within it... and we do, because what is there is enough to convey that depth, through the metonymy of little moments.

Ashes of the Ancestors is only a small story, but one that, with clever use of language, of dialogue, of perspective and worldbuilding, implies a depth that belies its size. It feels like the distillation of a longer, more expansively told story - losing nothing of the true purpose of it, nothing of the meaning, emotion or import, only concentrating it into something tiny and precise. Though there is nothing spare to it, nothing extraneous, nor is there anything that feels missed or missing. It is simply what it is, the story of the moment when everything changes. And it is wonderful.


The Math

Highlights: delightfully goth, a religion that feels both fantastical and intensely believable, beautiful use of sparse storytelling to imply greater depth

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Andrew Knighton, Ashes of the Ancestors, [Luna Press, 2023]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea