Kithamar is a great city-state, an economic power ruled over by a prince. When a new prince rises to power, it marks the beginning of a year of tumultuous events in the city. During this year, there will be intrigue and conflict and the lives of thousands will be impacted in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. When Alys's brother is murdered, she vows to find who is responsible and why. Helped by her friend Sammish, her investigation will take her from the lowest slums of Longhill to the highest heights of the royal palace, and the discovery of ancient, terrifying secrets.
Daniel Abraham is better-known these days for being one half of the gestalt entity James S.A. Corey, the authorial unit of The Expanse (both novels and the TV series). Before that, he was known for his solo work, especially his moving, beautifully-characterised Long Price Quartet and his mercantile series, The Dagger and The Coin. Abraham is a skilled writer of character-based fantasy, and a new series by him is a mouthwatering prospect.
The Kithamar Trilogy has a structurally interesting idea. Borrowing from Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours film trilogy, which consisted of three completely independent stories which just take place in the same world, with characters from one film occasionally showing up in the others, Kithamar tells three independent, stand-alone stories which just happen to take place in the same year. Some characters will cross over, although of course in this first novel it's impossible to tell which.
The story in this book revolves around a murder mystery. A young man from the slums has been killed, but his sister finds an unusual amount of money in his room and a mysterious dagger. With the help of her friend Sammish, she tracks down those who her brother was working for, whilst Sammish finds those who are opposed to that group. Both groups claim to be working for the greater good, and Alys and Sammish are torn between new loyalties and their own friendship. The result is a game of intelligence and counter-intelligence as the two friends try to decide how much they can trust the other, and what information they can can share.
Both characters are written with depth and complexity, as you'd expect from Abraham, and the ultra-tight focus on the two protagonists for most of its length gives the novel a pacy feel. However, as the book develops, other POV characters appear with varying degrees of prominence, which feels like it does mix up the flow at times. The plot does also eventually tell us that one of the two sides in the story is the unambiguous faction of black hats and which is the unambiguous faction of white hats, rather than trying to present both sides as deeper and more complex, perhaps with good reasons for doing what they're doing. This feels refreshing - moral murkiness may be more realistic, but it also feels a bit overdone at this point - but also feels like it runs counter to the idea of Alys and Sammish being friends divided by a cause; when they realise which cause is good and which is bad, the central conflict effectively vanishes.
Still, Kithamar is a fascinating city. Abraham describes each ward of the city in some detail, with the close but poor community of Longhill standing in contrast to the rich, privileged nobility living west of the river. It's a vivid fantasy metropolis, and I look forward to exploring it more in further volumes.
Age of Ash (****) is a striking fantasy novel with a rich atmosphere and excellent characters. The central conflict of the book lacks the moral complexity more common in recent fantasy works, but makes up for it with Abraham's trademark excellent prose and thoughtful descriptions. Plus it threads the needle of both being an excellent stand-alone novel and the opening of a longer, more interesting story. The novel is available now in the UK and USA. The second volume is expected in 2023.