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Reign of Ash is the second novel in Gail Z. Martin’s Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, and carries on with the tale of Blaine McFadden, possibly one of the last living Lords of the Blood who have a hope of restoring magic to a world that has been incredibly dependant on it in the past. Amid the schemes and plots of warlords and the tattered remains of the nobility, Blaine struggles to keep himself and his friends alive, while searching for the clues needed to bring back the magic.

Survival is just the beginning.

Blaine McFadden endured six long years in the brutal Velant prison colony, exiled for murder. War devastated his homeland of Donderath and destroyed the magic on which the Ascendant Kingdoms relied. Now Blaine and a small group of fellow exiles have returned to a lawless wasteland, where unrestrained magic storms wreak havoc and monsters roam free.

Yet, amidst the chaos, rumors persist of a new magic that could restore the kingdoms. But the key lies with a dangerous, ancient ritual and a group of vanished survivors. Now McFadden’s only hope is a small, desperate, quickly rallied army. Together they must make one last stand knowing that if they fail, the civilization of the Ascendant Kingdoms dies with them.

When I read the first book in this series, Ice Forged, I lauded Martin’s transition from what I felt was a more YA style in her earlier works into a more mature adult fantasy style, and that trend continues in Reign of Ash. The story feels more grown-up. The problems facing the characters are more real, more deadly, and there’s much less of this feeling that everything is for sure going to work out in the end. A great fantasy story needs the risk of real failure to keep the tension high and make you invest in the plot. Martin does an excellent job of showing us what the stakes are as well.

This world is one where magic was just incredibly intrinsic to every aspect of life. Almost everybody had some mild little form of magic. Whether their skill was keeping fences together, or keeping milk from spoiling, these small magics stood in for a lot of technology that would have existed at the time in a non-magical world. So in many of the same ways that a sudden failure of technology would seriously put our daily lives into chaos, so to does the loss of magic effect the people of the Ascendant Kingdoms. It is a fantastic tool to pull you into the story. It is very clear very quickly that what has happened is bad news and that our heroes are engaged in some serious and important stuff.

And of course, every good hero needs a villain, and what better type of villain than the one kind of person who is benefiting from the sudden loss of all human magic: Martin’s vampire stand-ins the talishte. I raised the point in my review of Ice Forged that the continual presence of vampires in virtually everything Martin has ever written sometimes reads strangely to me, and it’s still just as odd now as ever. There aren’t -any- other kinds of sentient races that we’ve been exposed to. There are just bog standard humans, and the talishte, and the origin of these vampires is still pretty opaque. They feel inserted because ‘omg vampires’ and not because they add much to the story by their inclusion.

The main reason for the talishte to exist in this story seems to be to justify why they would be opposed to Blaine’s attempts to bring back magic. They are, like most vampires, at a pretty serious disadvantage when it comes to conflict with humans. While they are stronger, faster, and generally much more powerful than a mundane human, they are still restricted by the usual vampire problems of sunlight, beheading and being caught on fire. So the continued loss of magic helps redress the balance of power, and makes a few choice vampires eager to rise up in this world of weaker humans and be all alpha predator again. It certainly gives them a good motive, but the point is raised each time by some of the ‘good’ vampires, that humanity’s superior numbers are always going to win the day eventually anyhow, if it comes to out and out war.

Similarly, there are plenty of people who could be taking strong advantage of the lack of magic. The role of ‘evil vampire who is tired of hiding from people’ could have been played by ‘evil warlord now triumphs with force of arms where magic previously held him at bay’ and that wouldn’t have required the inclusion of an entire supernatural race whose presence isn’t really explained well within the grounds of the fiction.

That said, if you don’t count my general gripes about the overabundance of vampires in everything in the past 10 years, this was a great read. The plot thickens and quickens from the first book, and develops in exactly the ways a middle or second book should. The pacing was good but not great, less in the actual pacing of the words themselves, but more in the way time passes in the fiction. There’s pretty timely important stuff going on, and a lot of time gets spent sitting around and thinking. I’m enjoying a lot of the characters more than I did in the first book, and their interrelationships are both more mature and more reasonable than in Ice Forged. All in all, it just reads as a strong sequel and a great progression for Martin.

I’ve said it before, and it’s still true: It is absolutely fascinating to watch an author just get better and better with each book. While I could honestly see an argument for this series to end after just these two books, I would be very interested to see a third continuing from the events of the conclusion of Reign of Ash.

Dan received an ARC of this book courtesy of Orbit via NetGalley.com

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