Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > In Ashes Lie

In Ashes Lie by Marie Brennan
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's review
Jul 04, 09

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bookshelves: fantasy, review-copy, 2009, historical-fiction
Read in July, 2009

It is 1636, the reign of Charles I and a time of upheaval in the English Parliament. With pressure from the Puritans, pressure against Charles Stuart's spendthrift ways and his requests for more money to fund his war in Scotland, the Commons is being manipulated by a few to put Charles on trial.

Sir Antony Ware, an alderman with a seat in the Commons, toes a fine line between Royalists and Puritans, trying to keep his seat long enough to do some good. For it's not just the mortals of London who are affected, but the fae of the Onyx Hall beneath the city feel the pain and upheaval of the world above.

Antony is the Faerie Queen's consort, the "Prince of the Stone", a mortal co-ruler of the Onyx Court. The Queen, Lune, once loved a mortal man, Michael Deven, and understands as no one else does the ties between the Onyx Hall and London City. The fae of the Hall's close relations with the mortal world brings censure and scorn from other faerie kingdoms, in particular the Scottish Gyre-Carling, Nicneven, who schemes to bring them down in retaliation for the death of Mary, Queen of Scots.

In 1666, the Great London Fire is started by an errant spark from a baker's oven and goes on to completely destroy the old city as well as more beyond its walls. In the Onyx Hall, the Winter Hag breathes the cold wind of death through the palace at the behest of Nicneven. As a great Fire Dragon is born of the ever-increasing flames, so the threat from all sides increases and Lune is put in the untenable position of having to consider the sacrifice of her home, or her throne.

Anyone who knows their British history knows that Charles I was tried and executed by his own parliament, something that had no precedent and has never happened since. It was a corrupted parliament with no authority, but it served its purpose and a brief Commonwealth and military rule led by Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector, followed. (Despite what the book's blurb says, the political upheaval etc. didn't occur in 1666.)

The Fire of 1666, the year after the Black Plague devastated the population of London, is another big event in the country's history. As historical fiction, In Ashes Lie is a detailed, vigourous read. I haven't studied this century since first year uni and frankly, I'd forgotten all the details, so it was refreshing to revisit it all in a fictional context.

In contrast, the fantasy side of the novel is sadly lacking. The old city of London, with the Tower and London Bridge, St Paul's Cathedral and the Exchange, Cheapside and Gracechurch Street (recognisable by any Pride and Prejudice fan), is a place of mystery, darkness, squalor and myth. Less squalor these days I'm sure, but the whole of England is inseparable from its folklore. There's an atmosphere of promise, a hint of something Other, something fae, hidden unless you know where to look for it.

The trouble is, I never got a chance to see beyond a surface picture. Few of the faeries were fleshed out - Lune, yes, but the sprite Irrith, the knight Cerendel, the giant Prigurd, the brownies Gertrude and Rosamunde and a bare few others were lightly touched upon, their personalities hinted at. I might have been able to appreciate this mysteriousness but the atmosphere was missing. The novel revolves entirely on plot and a forward momentum through the decades, from 1636 to 1666, and selfishly hoards its characters' more intimate natures, feelings and motivations.

The structure worked well most of the time, alternating between short visits to the fire in 1666, where time moves more slowly as they battle the flames, the Dragon, the Hag and Nicneven, and the lead-up to the fire, jumping over near decades in the interim. There're always some elements of the future that you know of, and others that haven't yet been revealed, which maintains some suspense and tension. Yet the anticipation is not always there, and as bogged down in worldly politics as it can get, it didn't always hold my interest. I also sometimes became disorientated, struggling to remember whether something happened in the now or in the future.

In a way, I was disappointed that Brennan didn't interweave the fae with the mortals more closely - history happened regardless of the fae, rather than truly influenced or affected by it, leaving you wondering what the point is. On the one hand, I like that it wasn't contrived in that way, but on the other I kept thinking it would be made more exciting if it were. Needless to say, I fluctuated in my response a great many times while reading this.
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