Litstack Recs | The Empathy Exams & Age of Ash

Age of Ash, by Daniel Abraham

Age of Ash is the story of two young women from the poorest section of the great city of Kithamar. Both live doing odd jobs as they can, and belong to a crew performing pulls – in other words, organized thievery. Alys is the flea, the one who distracts, allowing the cutter to slip in and take. Sammich is the walk-away, who is handed the take and then, well, walks away. Both of them are very good at what they do; Alys, because she is clever and Sammich because she “had that kind of face that people forgot as soon as they looked away from her.”

Abraham at ConFusion 2017
Daniel Abraham

Alys’s father is gone and her mother is a drunk; her brother moved out in anger but still looks after her – the only one who will. Sammich has only herself, and she’s learned to deal with that, but she yearns after Alys in secret.

This might seem a somewhat typical start to a somewhat expected fantasy tale, except for one thing. This one is written by Daniel Abraham.

I know of no other writer in any genre who is able to take a plotline and make it live and breathe with characters who transcend mere storytelling as successfully as Daniel Abraham. Whether it be his high fantasy The Dagger and the Coin series, where the money behind the might is just as powerful as the sword that defends it, to the superlative work he did with Ty Franck in penning The Expanse science fiction series (yes, the recently concluded 9-book series that was turned into a television show, first on SyFy and then Amazon Prime), Abraham is able to take complex social situations and fluidly make them come alive through the dynamic characters that live within them, characters who are often flawed but redemptive in coming to terms with the lives they have been dealt.

Alys, Sammich and most of the inhabitants of Longhill are Inlisc, descended ages ago from nomads and herders who originally settled in a camp along the river Khalhon before the conquering Hansch came and declared it to be their city instead. Every day is a struggle for the people of Longhill, but they still are proud of their resourcefulness, their determination and their recklessness, or at least most of them do. Some of them merely survive. But when Alys tries to follow in her brother’s footsteps, she finds that how you survive comes with unintended consequences. When those consequences grow to encompass the city itself, in a surprisingly literal way, she has to question the person she has become and why she has left behind those who use to be her anchor.

Age of Ash is an amazing book, not because it will figuratively sweep you away, but because it will inhabit your imagination as deftly and as creatively as Alys and Sammich inhabit the different aspects of the city they call home. You will see them in your mind’s eye, and feel them in your heart. You will love this book.

—Sharon Browning