We Men of Ash and Shadow by HL Tinsley

We Men of Ash and Shadow by HL Tinsley

we men of ash and shadow by hl tinsley the heron kings by eric lewis grimdark fantasy debut novel review addermire wonderdraft themes the hod king josiah bancroft joe abercrombie mark lawrence chassepot bayonet
Am I starting to go overboard with the props? Maybe, but it’s too much fun…

We Men of Ash and Shadow is the debut novel from HL Tinsley, and is a grimdark industrial fantasy that grips you hard from the beginning and tosses aside all notions of hope or redemption, until it doesn’t.

John Vanguard is a protagonist of the type you might recognize from works of similar style- a cynical killer consumed with sins form his past and utterly convinced he has no future. After the trauma of leaving his comrades to die in a war years before, he now ekes out a living in the slums of the prison-like industrial city D’Orsee as a paid assassin for the corrupt officer who runs things from afar. Vanguard is saved from being completely despicable by the fact that his targets just happen to be the worst of the worst of humanity. He’s aided by the uncanny ability to remain unnoticed by anyone until he wants to be. Whether this ability is magic or just a talent is left ambiguous, which I personally love. But when the corpses of the city’s guards start washing up in the river at the same time as a prominent citizen disappears, Vanguard is drawn into a deeper plot with broad political consequences. The appearance of another major character named Tarryn, someone with similar stealthy abilities, could mean a new ally or something else. As the story unfolded my opinion of him changed not once, but several times.

The worldbuilding of this book could more properly be called citybuilding, since it takes place almost entirely within the sealed walls of D’Orsee. This gives it a claustrophobia-inducing quality, making it easy to feel the desperation of the inhabitants, smell the stink of the slums and feel bloodthirsty eyes following you from its shadows. That’s the impression from the poor section, at least. There are more upper-class districts which are sharply divided from the rest, which is always a nice recipe for revolution. A map would have been helpful, even a basic one like in Priest of Bones. We do very quickly get a sense of the power players in this part of the city- the respected bartender who’s reached the legendary age of sixty, the tough as nails whorehouse madam, the gang leader who’ll cut your throat for fun, the avaricious club owner.  All these characters and others besides paint a portrait of a seething city on a knife’s edge, which can be knocked into chaos with little extra provocation. There is a lot of telling done, especially in the beginning, and a bit more dialogue might help flesh out the setting more vividly.

The book is suffused with clever turns of phrase which move the plot forward with delightful snarkiness, which is something I always appreciate. Even in sections with a lot of exposition and little action, the reader can always count on the most colorful way of relating information. Even so, there’s a lot of imagery and plot packed into every page. This is a very fast-paced book, maybe a little too fast in some cases, as I didn’t always get a sense for who some characters really were before moving on to something else. The chapters are quite short, and though this could be a detriment to other styles of book (looking at you BH&KJA!), in this case it fits the action and pace, and makes it easy to pick a spot to stop and take a breath. In terms of style I was actually reminded a little of Glen Cook, but in Cook’s case his style (at least in the Black Company) is so clipped I had trouble following what was going on. That wasn’t the case here, though you do have to pay attention.

There’s a good bit of head-hopping in this book, and having grown up reading Dune multiple times this didn’t really bother me much. But there were several occasions where I had to reread a line to work out who was saying what to whom, who was thinking what, and this might throw off some readers. POV discipline is something I’ve had to learn the hard way, so I can sympathize, but I hope future volumes will be a bit more restrained.

The plot builds quickly to a not-quite-conclusion, clearly setting up the conflict for the next volume in a series. There’s a vague middle ground separating enemies and allies, and some characters switch between the two which helps keep the tension high. This story did a wonderful job of presenting characters with real moral ambiguity, and not just “everyone is bad and everything sucks and that’s it the end.” Paralleling this, there’s a good illustration of how mob rebellions are very unpredictable, and who they follow can depend on nothing more than who manipulates them first or best. I won’t spoil the ending, but there were several antagonistic characters, and I wish more of them had been taken care of by the end of this book. But it sets up high expectations for the next volume. This was a quick and entertaining read, and I await the next entry in the Vanguard series with interest.

 

HL Tinsley’s website: https://htinsleywriter.wordpress.com/

 

Pairs well with: Alaskan Brewing Co. 2015 Smoked Porter

Who knew the darkness in your own soul could be so tasty? This is a ‘vintage’ smoked porter from Alaskan Brewing, and yep, that’s a five year old beer. Disgusting, you say! Nope. At 6.8% ABV, this beer ages like wine. I’ve talked about rauchbier before, and the only genuine example I’ve had tasted like liquid summer sausage, and not in a good way. This version dials it back to just the right level. The beer pours very dark, obviously, with minimal head that dissipates quickly and very little carbonation. The aroma is dark and slightly sweet with heavy smoke and a little bit of chocolate or coffee undertone. The malty, faintly meaty taste is a bit lighter on the smoke but not by too much, making it the perfect level for me personally. It has a bittersweet flavor with 45 IBUs and a short toasty finish. I bought this bottle refrigerated but purely by chance it sat out for about half an hour before I opened it, and the temperature then was just about perfect for all the flavors to come through. The city D’Orsee in We Men of Ash and Shadow gives off a greasy, smoky, industrial vibe, so it pairs very well with this beer.

 

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