Written by: Raymond E. Feist
Publsihed by: Harper Collins
Reviewed by: Corissa McClay
King of Ashes is the first book in the Firemane series, setting up the main characters and political landscape. A political betrayal that kills the entire ruling family of Ithrace, one of five kingdoms, sets everything off. In the aftermath Baron Daylon Dumarch, a close friend of the King of Ithrace, finds a baby in his camp tent. The baby is the last of the betrayed royal family. Daylon immediately sends the baby to be raised in a ‘kingdom’ of secretive assassins until he reaches manhood.
After this prologue the story follows the orphaned heir, known as Hatu, and a young blacksmith named Declan, as our main point of view protagonists. There are a few other side characters, including a female assassin in training named Hava, who gets a couple of point of view chapters.
From the start, this book was tough going. King of Ashes is the first in a series, and it shows. I had a hard time getting into the plot, because there isn’t a ton of it here. The first book is the foundation for a lot more to come, that’s obvious, and sadly suffers for it. I really only found the plot holding my interest about two thirds of the way through. Until then it felt more like a series of vignettes, built to get the characters to the real starting line and establish the world.
But that sometimes happens in longer series, and if there were no other flaws it would be easy enough to overlook. Less forgivable were the issues with the characters. The prologue makes an attempt to set up Baron Daylon and his bastard brother as good people in a tough spot. Unfortunately the reasons given for their part in this betrayal are no believable, and combined with other character flaws they come across as uncaring and unlikable. Hatu is described as having significant issues with an explosive temper. However, this is seen only when it’s plot convenient, and then rarely. When he’s not talking about this awful temper that we never see, he’s annoyingly obsessed with remembering seeing his female classmate naked. Seemingly every one of Hatu’s chapters spend long paragraphs reiterating his attraction to her, generally by focusing on how embarrassing his resulting erections are. A few instances of this would make sense, but it’s nearly every chapter, and gets old quickly. Declan is quite a bit better, a steady, kind fellow, who manages to be likeably new to the greater world and surprisingly competent. Among the other characters on offer, his chapters were the most enjoyable.
King of Ashes also suffers from significant problems surrounding female characters. Feist rarely misses an opportunity to rely on an outdated cliche where any female character comes up, even in passing. The female assassins are only valued for their ability to seduce powerful men, as shown in the special school where they learn how to have sex. Teen girls are painted as loose (any unnamed village girl or passing merchant’s daughters) or pure (any love interest), with little in between. Hava’s first point of view chapter was so rife with mean girl competition that it made me wish she wouldn’t get any more chapters of her own. The hot but dumb mean girl’ vs ‘not as pretty but very smart girl’ cliche was laid on so thick I was actively rolling my eyes.
These issues are especially disappointing because I’d like to know more about this world. Feist does a good job showing the reader just enough to hint at deeper things, without giving too much away. The political balance, matched with the rising power of a unified church over the many gods people generally worship, was intriguing. I wish I could have seen more about some of the specific regions in the book, especially the area Declan starts out in. And in the last few chapters there were some really promising glimpses of the magic in the world, and why that makes Hatu so important. The attention to detail in the descriptions of sailing and smithing, even travel, all really help the world come alive.
King of Ashes might have been a standout novel in times past, but in the here and now it reads as dated and cliche-driven. Yes, Feist has embraced the modern lean toward huge door-stopper novels. The world building feels contemporary. There’s a touch of the grim-dark trend in there, with the cannibal witches and generally unlikable point of view characters in the prologue. But the rest, the vague prophecy and orphaned princes and wise older mentors and the general treatment of female characters as a whole, it all feels like a checklist of standard fantasy tropes. It’s possible that there will be a fresh take on some of these elements in the later parts of the series. But taken on its own, King of Ashes is a lackluster start that doesn’t have me yearning for the next in the series.