Author: Scott Reintgen
Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy
Version: ARC – ebook
Page Count: 368
Publisher: Crown Books for Young Readers
Notable Notables: Interesting POV choices, commentary on class divisions, phoenix horses
Recommended Readers: This one’s for all the horse girls and competitive sports enthusiasts out there! (Is revolution a competitive sport?)
Thank you, Net Galley and the publisher, for offering this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Well, Scott Reintgen has actually done it. He’s gotten me to read a horse-racing book, the nerve of him. I couldn’t resist, though. I was blown away by his Nyxia triad over the years, falling in love with the way he tells stories and the ideas he generates throughout. I’ll pretty much read anything he does at this point.
But, c’mon, do I look like a horse girl to you? Never mind that when I was little I watched Black Beauty until the tape broke and my mom wept in sweet relief. Never mind that I lined up my little plastic horses along the length of the kitchen because they were in a parade, and the other animals weren’t invited. Never mind that I’ve seen Hidalgo, Seabiscuit, and War Horse in theaters. But I definitely wasn’t and am not a horse girl. Turn horses into phoenix horses, though, and I am a complete sucker apparently.
Ashlords centers around three protagonists, each one of them hopefuls to win the Races, the most important event in Ashlord society. First is Imelda, a Dividian who has a particular talent for alchemy and is part of a people who have been oppressed by the Ashlords for centuries. Then there is Adrian, a Longhand whose people split from the Ashlords to form their own society, rejecting their gods and wishing to rekindle war. Finally, there’s Pippa, an Ashlord daughter of two previous champions and the clear favorite to win.
I loved all three of these characters, as evidenced by the fact that I had so much trouble determining who I wanted to win the Races most and achieve their ultimate goals. Each one has interesting perspectives and motives that are driving them, and none of these characters are entirely in the right or in the wrong either. While Dividians are oppressed, they once intended to be conquerors themselves. The Longhands are looked down upon, but they are willing to sacrifice whoever they need to in order to have their war. As for the Ashlords, they are proud, arrogant, ruthless, and live in excess, but they demonstrate a certain piety to their gods and are capable of change and compassion. In other words, this is a powder keg of conflict waiting to happen.
Though I enjoyed the voice and perspectives of each character equally, Pippa’s stuck out to me the most due to a clever choice Reintgen makes: writing her in second-person perspective. I remember updating by reading progress during this time, saying, “Okay, but no one in the game is doing it quite like Scott Reintgen.”
This isn’t to say it’s the only second-person perspective I’ve seen. I’m also reading The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie which does the same thing. However, Reintgen choosing to make the “oppressor” character, a teenage girl, have a “you” perspective was a stroke of genius to me. What better way to put the readers straight into this character? What better way to have readers embrace Pippa’s privilege and pressures as their own, to understand more directly than ever the choices she makes without so easily dismissing them as “stupid” or “bad” or some other basic thing? Pippa is entirely her own character, but we are also her in a way, too, and I loved that. The nuance it brings!
Imelda and Adrian’s journeys similarly impressed me because I was truly surprised by the directions they took. There are so many character-type clichés Ashlords could have taken with everyone, but Reintgen lobs you a soft pitch that turns into a curve ball at the last second. I won’t go into how everyone and everything turns out because I want others to have the same fun that I did.
And the gods, the gods. I go absolutely feral whenever I get chilling, meddling god characters who attempt to control and interfere with the lives of mortals. I need so much more of this than the taste I got here, and I am literally praying that I will have just that in the following book. It’s just brilliant what was set up here—now give me the meat!
Another wonderful surprise: Bastian. Oh, he is For Me. He is My Type. May the second book give me all I could ever want of him and more so.
Quinn was likewise interesting, but I’m going back and forth on her role in this book. Character-wise, I love her. Would not change a thing. She’s a product of Reintgen’s original idea for this series, which was her racing through different dimensions, until he scraped that idea due to feedback and focused solely on the phoenix horse dimension. I was delighted by this dimension—the phoenix horses, the alchemy involved, the roles the gods play with technology and other events—but I am also deeply intrigued by whatever that other original idea was. Quinn herself feels like she’s still ricocheting between being part of this book and part of that original idea. Her “world” is the underworld now, and she’s enslaved by the gods, but hearing her talk… It’s like she’s still from somewhere else, like I’m missing some spin-off books or something.
Long story short, I like the questions and feelings Quinn’s presence has given me, but I hope what I’ve read here isn’t the last word on them. I definitely want more follow-through and payoff as to why we learn about her struggles and what she’s fighting against. Knowing Reintgen, we probably will. I can’t imagine he would have this character and then do nothing with her later on.
As for the Races itself, I enjoyed what I read, but I was thrown off that there wasn’t more to them. What I got was gold, but it takes the first half of the book before we get there. Until then, we’re learning about the characters, their stakes and motivations, and how they feel about their society, but there isn’t much character-to-character interaction when it comes to the three protagonists. Even during the Races, their interactions are very touch-and-go. Given how crazy and competitive the first Nyxia book is especially, the Races in Ashlords feels somewhat tame in comparison, though there’s still some wonderfully shocking things in store.
In the end, though, the book isn’t really about the Races, is it? It’s about the commentary on class and social standing that surrounds it. It’s about the fascinating alchemy with these phoenix horses. It’s about the meanings of revolution, freedom, and justice, and if those things are necessarily the same or not.
So even though this didn’t get slam-dunked as a five-star read from me, it definitely swooshed straight into the net. Why in the world am I making so many sports metaphors? Well, I did just read a horse-racing book, and I’m looking forward to the next book, too, featuring horses in a war.
Also, I am very into Pippa’s next stage regarding said war RE: Bravos. Extremely so. Good for her.