Ember and Ash
by Pamela FreemanEmber and Ash starts with one of those hook introductions, an out of context snippet designed to pique your curiosity and reel you into the story. In this case it's a horrifying scene where a young woman caught in a fire as she watches another person burn. Continuing with the incendiary theme we meet Ash, a young man with a secret to uphold and particular powers related to his Traveller blood. A renowned hero known as the Prowman takes him half-way up a mountain and urges him to swear an oath before he'll teach Ash the whole truth about his heritage. Ash swears, but things things turn out very much not as expected. It's all very ominous and strange.
Ash returns from the mountain to attend his cousin Ember's marriage. Her wedding to Osfrid is meant to be a joyful occasion which will solidify the union between north and south. She's the daughter of a warlord and this is a political marriage, although in spite of that Ember is very happy with her handsome husband-to-be.
Such contentment can't last in fiction. The power of Fire appears at the celebration, clashes with Ember, and makes his feelings about the union very clear. All across the domain fires die out and can't be relit. Ember is faced with a stark choice: she must undertake a long journey to the Fire mountain to submit to the power of Fire and plead for her people's lives, or let them freeze to death.
So Ember sets off with a band of trusty adventurers on an epic quest to relight the hearths and save her country. Meanwhile the Ice King's people in the mountains are considering their own travel plans. Nyr, a prince and heir to their throne, is in favour of trade. But pillage and slaughter of neighbouring communities is more in keeping with their traditions. It looks like Nyr's voice won't be heard and the ages-old enmity between the Ice King's people and everybody else will go on indefinitely.
What we have here is quite a traditional fantasy set in a pre-industrial world with horseback treks, magic, and so on. Several cruel and unusual Powers control the elements they are named for, like gods crossed with forces of nature. A variety of wraiths, shapeshifters, local gods and stonecasting prophets furnish the story with added supernatural sparkle. However it doesn't matter all that much that the setting is similar to the work of many other fantasy authors and a little too familiar, because the storytelling is an immediate draw. I felt for Ember and her companions as they struggled towards an unknown destination and as they prepare to sacrifice themselves for a higher cause. The atmosphere sizzles with forbidden love. The warlord Arvid is sympathetic as he battles to reconcile the love he has for his wife with the knowledge of her treachery. Woven in between this is the plight of the Travellers, a people who fear a return to the persecution they have so recently escaped.
Thanks to rounded characters and good pacing Ember and Ash is gripping. I particularly liked they way the dialogue brought out the regional flavour of the Eleven Domains without ever going over the top and sounding clumsy. However one thing I found somewhat unconvincing was the way characters tend to launch into battle before asking questions or even stopping to find out who they're attacking. It makes for a frenzied plot, but the behaviour of these hot-heads eventually starts to seem unlikely.
By the end it's quite clear what the metaphor of the elemental magic is all about, and where things are headed for the characters. Perhaps that's why, after a fantastic opening, the novel heads for an ending that's merely good. It's fun getting there, but by the very last chapters some of the ardour has gone.
16th May 2011
Review © Ros Jackson