parallel SPFBO (Self Published Fantasy Blog-Off) contest happening. I always love finding some new indie authors and books, so I decided to read through the finalists of that contest and review them on my site. As always, let me know your own thoughts in the comments.
We Men of Ash and Shadow by HL Tinsley
In this grimdark gaslight fantasy, readers follow John Vanguard, a kind of mercenary, through the streets of a city where corruption is rampant. Vanguard runs into a would-be assassin and the plot takes off from there.
The story follows Vanguard fairly closely, as he takes on some morally rough tasks. I can’t say I ever really got into Vanguard as a character. I don’t dislike the trope of following someone who’s morally gray or even bad (one series I enjoy follows a Hitman who likes stamp collecting, for example), but there has to be some kind of hook. Vanguard reads to me as a kind of milquetoast down-on-his-luck guy who doesn’t necessarily want to be doing what he does even though he does a lot of it anyway. And because of that, readers are supposed to be empathetic towards his plight or something. I just couldn’t buy into it as much as I’d have liked to.
There are some neat moments of critique of the world, such as the way cities are run and how difficult it is to get in. I thought it was both an interesting piece of worldbuilding and a kind of oblique critique of stratification and wealth-hording. Indeed, the world-building was the highlight of the book.
Overall, though, I couldn’t help but feel that the idea felt a bit stale. That’s not really the fault of this specific book, I guess. At this point in my reading for the SPFBO contest, 3/5 books have been grimdark mystery-esque books in grimy or morally opaque worlds.
Gray morality is the theme of the book, which made it hard for me to really root for anyone specifically. Characters hook up, kill, fight, and more, but sometimes their motivations are unclear for why they act the way they do. There is no small amount of political intrigue, as well, but with those characters also embroiled in the same broad wash of colorless morals, it becomes difficult to truly decide who to root for.
Overall, I thought this novel was a tad more generic in its characters, which made it difficult for me to get into. On the flip side, the many reviews on Goodreads almost all lean towards glowing, so I might just be the minority here. We Men of Ash and Shadows is a morally tenuous fantasy story in a dark world filled with violence. If that speaks to you, give it a shot.
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