Read Along with Faye tackles the 2017 Sirens Reading Challenge! Each month, Sirens communications staff member Faye Bi will review and discuss a book on her journey to read the requisite 25 books to complete the challenge. Titles will consist of this year’s Sirens theme of women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. We invite you to join us and read along!
It’s the end of August! Which means, according to the rules of the Reading Challenge, I have just over a month to read nine-or-so books. At this point, I’ve read books that were on my radar but hadn’t tried yet, or had been itching to read anyway. But due that other rule that I must read works by authors I’ve never read before (and I have read a lot of these authors’ other works), the books remaining are mostly quiet books, or by authors I haven’t heard of, or hard to find.
Fortunately, Leah Bobet’s An Inheritance of Ashes wasn’t too hard to find—I’d managed to check it out from my library. Without having read her previous Above, I went into this one without any expectations, nor any idea of the plot, setting or level of shininess (a standard YA measure for me, or also known as: how much kissing, swooning, or angst over a hot, beguiling, usually male love interest is in this book, as oft characterized by their foil-effected covers?). And, well, Ashes certainly is a quiet book. And I’m pleased to say, full of surprises, and not shiny at all, in the best way possible.
Hallie (full name Halfrida Hoffmann) and her pregnant sister Marthe run their family farm in what feels like a pre-industrial, agrarian society. There’re goats to be milked, barns to be repaired, barley to be harvested, and talks of “courting” when considering romantic interests. The next-door neighbors, the Blakelys, look in on Hallie and Marthe, since Marthe’s husband and father of her future child has not returned from the war. The two sisters are struggling, each one emotionally isolated from the other, and they’re barely surviving. But then two things happen: Hallie hires a veteran soldier, Heron, to help out on the farm before winter sets in (even though there’s something off about him), and she finds a Twisted Thing on her property.
Then, another detail. It turns out we’re not in the past. We’re in the aftermath of war—a victorious one, whatever that means—set in a society in post-industrial decline, after cities and all their tech “went dark.” The war that Heron, Tyler Blakely and Marthe’s husband Thom all fought in was one of, well, portal magic, and the Twisted Things are instruments of a Wicked God in another dimension, presumed to be eradicated after the war ended. This unusual setting allows Bobet freedom to come up with new norms and new standards of normalcy: a queer couple’s relationship is featured prominently and unremarked upon, the best scientist for miles around is a young girl, and her characters are a melting pot of ethnicities and skin colors.
But where Bobet shines the most is what I like to call the “low fantasy” stuff—not the epic battlegrounds or complex intrigue of kings and generals, but the mundane, every day, equally significant events in the lives of farmers, soldiers and small townspeople. Heron must come to terms with his past and how the rest of the Great Army perceives him. Tyler, injured from his service in the war, feels constricted by his caring mother and sharp sister who only want him to be healthy. Hallie’s coming-of-age is easy to believe and root for: here’s a girl who constantly feels like she can’t do anything right, but still tries so damn hard. Her fraught relationship with Marthe has scabbed over wounds from years of abuse from their now-dead father—wounds that have festered, reared their ugly heads, and taken flight before finally being healed.
Ashes has all this, plus musings on small-town politics and what it means to be a hero or a villain. It’s set against the backdrop of a refreshingly different time period and a vague but real magical threat. It starts slowly, is sparse with flash, and though there is some kissing, it’s pretty quiet. I am someone who loves quiet books. If you do too, An Inheritance of Ashes won’t just be up your alley, but the reason you bowl.
(I read this on e- so I don’t know if the cover is shiny. Is it?)
Faye Bi is a book-publishing professional based in New York City, and leads the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is happiest planning nerdy parties, capping off a long run with brunch, and cycling along the East River.