Ashes of the Sun by Django Wexler is the first book of the Burningblade & Silverye series, and it’s a roaring good adventure. Just don’t expect anything deeper from the story. It focuses on Gyre and Maya, brother and sister, who are violently separated in childhood when a fearsome warrior known as a centarch removes Maya from her farm family. She is apparently afflicted with an illness which only the Twilight Order of centarchs can cure, but the sickness is actually a propensity to use certain magical powers which make her eligible for training as a future centarch.
Gyre tries to stop what seems like an abduction and is horribly injured for his trouble, losing an eye and gaining a scar that mark him for life. On one level, Ashes of the Sun is the story of how these two characters grow into their names, Burningblade and Silvereye. That’s a classic step in what promises to be a thrilling heroic fantasy series.
The characters are a lot of fun, but don’t look here for much subtlety. The good guys are enjoyably good and the bad thoroughly bad. What good, for example, could you expect of a character named Dux Raskos Rottentooth, whose teeth in fact are rotten, as if his corrupt character seeps right through his mouth? Or an insidious dogmatist named Nicomidi, or a gigantic ghoul who wants to rule the world?
After the prologue of the abduction scene, we follow Gyre and Maya in their separate worlds twelve years later through alternating chapters. Both are students in a sense, Maya formally so as an apprentice (or agathios) to the centarch Jaedia, and Gyre in a more haphazard, street-smart way as he dedicates himself to overthrowing the Order that stole his sister from him.
There are great supporting characters. Maya has her fascinating sidekick, Beq, who usually has a technical solution to a terrible scrape. Gyre has his freewheeling, quip-ready, never quite trustworthy Kitsrea, always ready to throw herself and Gyre into impossibly dangerous situations. The deepening relationships between each of these two pairs are one of the highlights of the novel.
Especially impressive is Wexler’s ability to write exciting action sequences, of which there are many. Lightning movement is exceptionally clear. That may seem like a basic ability for writing action scenes, but so many writers get very murky about the details of every thrust and parry or blast and recoil.
Wexler is a genius at hand-to-hand combat, with warriors wielding their light-saber-like energy weapons, arcana bombs and assorted devices. Yet the real heroics are always tested when the weapons fail (in this case they actually run out of fuel) and the protagonists are thrown on their own skill and wit to overcome nearly impossible odds.
The cities in Ashes of the Sun also interest me, including as they do the remains of ancient architecture or set beside great gashes in the earth, reminders of fallen civilizations. The streets can often be narrow and tumbledown, reminding me of some of China Miéville’s creations. Here’s one especially interesting introduction, notable for the indirect way it gives you the feel of living in this strange place:
“Deepfire was a city of many fogs, and after three years Gyre was familiar with the peculiarities of each. There was the black fog that issued from the Pit and meant it was time to take in your washing unless you wanted it stained gray. The rare green fog, which crept out of the crevices like a living thing and could kill a child in minutes. The falling fog, which descended in great gray waterfalls from where the cold mountain winds met the rising hot air from the cracked and broken earth, and the rising fog, billowing in tall columns from the sewers and storm drains.”Ashes of the Sun, Kindle edition, page 25
The way the story started out, I was worried it would simply follow Gyre and Maya on a series of adventures in which they take on batches of anonymously armored elite soldiers or scores of revolting beasts called plaguespawn at a time. I was also concerned that this would edge into grim horror, which is just not my thing, as each monster, consisting of an assemblage of limbs ripped from animal and human corpses, is described in careful detail.
But there are epic themes here, and both Gyre and Maya find themselves converging on tasks to preserve what is best in their fallen world.The now vanished Chosen, an Elder race that once ruled the world and battled a race of furred humanoid creatures called ghouls, have left behind not just dazzling weapons and magical technology but more importantly an order of great warriors called centarchs who have innate abilities to wield these weapons. They follow a strict code to defend the republic that survived to rule part of the world. Different forces, though, are trying to get control of hidden technology, thought to have been destroyed, that promises power to rule this strange, broken world.
You may notice the parallels to Star Wars, and Wexler freely acknowledges his debt to that universe and what he calls science fantasy. But it’s not Star Wars. There are no space ships (well, at least not ones that can still fly) and no interplanetary travel. There are gates that can transport people overland instantaneously, but they are few and far between, so there are lots of long marches up valleys that usually come alive with plaguespawn. And there isn’t exactly an evil empire, just corrupt and power-hungry people who want to take over the world. There is a dark-side sort of force or magic that can take over even the best of people, and both Gyre and Maya have to go through a complex testing process to gain the ability to root it out.
After reading so many great fantasy and science fiction books recently that take on big subjects like gender, oppression, memory and identity, I had to let myself go with the flow for a spirited adventure that doesn’t probe anything too deeply. Sure, these themes are present in Ashes of the Sun but more as tropes rather than ideas with an original take. That’s OK because everything Wexler puts into this book is handled well. He is an enormously capable writer, and I look forward to the next novel in the Burningblade & Silvereye series.