Ashlords by Scott Reintgen
Every year since the Ashlords were gifted phoenix horses by their gods, they’ve raced them. First into battle, then on great hunts, and finally for the pure sport of seeing who rode the fastest. Centuries of blood and fire carved their competition into a more modern spectacle: The Races.
Over the course of a multi-day event, elite riders from clashing cultures vie to be crowned champion. But the modern version of the sport requires more than good riding. Competitors must be skilled at creating and controlling phoenix horses made of ash and alchemy, which are summoned back to life each sunrise with uniquely crafted powers to cover impossible distances and challenges before bursting into flames at sunset. But good alchemy only matters if a rider knows how to defend their phoenix horse at night. Murder is outlawed, but breaking bones and poisoning ashes? That’s all legal and encouraged.
In this year’s Races, eleven riders will compete, but three of them have more to lose than the rest–a champion’s daughter, a scholarship entrant, and a revolutionary’s son. Who will attain their own dream of glory? Or will they all flame out in defeat?
DISCLAIMER: I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
EXPECTED JANUARY 21ST, 2020
Ashlords is The Scorpio Races meets The Hunger Games!
Set in a world where the Ashlords keep horses that die with the setting sun and rise reborn with the dawn (and a little alchemical help), Ashlords follows three contestants in this years Races, all vying for success, all with their own reasons. There can only be one winner of the Races, though, and Reintgen leaves the reader waiting until the very end to see who will become champion.
It’s not as simple as an outright race, though. Glory is hardly the only thing at stake. For Imelda, known as the Alchemist for her incredible skill in raising unconventional horse varieties, winning would mean providing to the Ashlords that her people, the Dividians, aren’t the lesser folk that Ashlords seem them as. For Adrian, winning the Races would be the fuel for rebellion that his father, leader of the Longhand rebels, so desperately needs. And for Pippa, daughter of two legendary racers, claiming the championship is in her blood, and it’s her ticket to a new life.
And when the Races aren’t set up to be fair so much as good entertainment, there’s no telling what will happen.
It’s these three conflicting viewpoints chasing the same goal, plus the glitz and glamour of high profile, dangerous competition, that give Ashlords a flavor not unlike The Hunger Games. I mean that in the best way, too. The Races force each character to confront the ugly truths of the world they live in, and the stakes are far too high to accept anything short of first place. You go in knowing that only one racer can take first place, and you stay there wondering who you want to back.
Naturally, The Scorpio Races comparison works its way in via the horse races and their perilous nature. Ashlords may not be racing along the coast with ravenous water horses, but the pitfalls along the way hold their own challenges.
“A storm wouldn’t be all that fun without a little noise.”
Ultimately, though, Ashlords is its own book, and an exciting one at that. I fell in love with it because of those competitive aspects worked so thoroughly into the plot, and because phoenix horses are an incredibly original concept.
I also fell in love with the characters. At first, only Imelda was especially compelling to me, talented as she is in her alchemical pursuits. She thinks outside of the box, and has natural talent that can’t be taught. Plus, she knows where to draw the line, where to say she’s had enough, and she follows through on it. There’s only so much she can do, one girl against an entire corrupt system, but the spark is there in her, and it’s burning bright.
Meanwhile, Adrian seemed too simple at first, but I grew to appreciate the place he found himself in. Caught between his father’s far-reaching plans and his own values, what starts off as a quest for revenge becomes more skeptical and nuanced. Throw in some divine interference (which I love, thank you, please send more mortal-immortal antagonism my way) and a budding sense of independence, and you end up with a character who isn’t going to take anything lying down.
Pippa, though, takes the cake for me. While Imelda and Adrian have first person POVs, Pippa’s share of the story appears in second person. You step into her shoes, into her head, and you see the weight of her decisions as each one cashes in on the consequences. The shift from first to second person was at first jarring, but in hindsight, I found it exceptionally clever. A first person POV would have made Pippa seem shallow and entirely non-viable as a protagonist. Second person, though, brings all of her strengths and weaknesses into the light, and makes every change visible. It’s an unorthodox approach, but it’s particularly effective. I think she could be a protagonist or an antagonist in the sequel, and it’s a very compelling place to be at.
When the sun goes down, though, something is missing.
Truly, I loved the concept of phoenix horses, and I can’t get enough of competitions that force characters at odds. Throw in some impressive character growth and the looming threat of rebellion, the threat of choosing sides, and I should be all over it.
Looking back, though, I needed more, and didn’t get it.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s missing. Do I feel it’s almost too much like THG? Do I have too many questions about how certain characters carried out their plans? Am I left wanting in the world-building? As terrible as it feels to answer “yes” to all of these questions, I think that’s the case. I have questions about some of the stunts Imelda pulled, largely questions of how. I couldn’t get THG far enough from my head while I was reading. And the use of gold coinage in a world that has some equivalent to YouTube threw me for a loop. Pile some rather under-utilized gods into the mix, and I crave more about the world than Ashlords offered me.
3.5 stars is still a positive rating, however!
Even if some aspects of Ashlords led to a shade of disappointment, it’s still a strong book with a captivating premise and tense progression. I suspect I’ll happily return for the conclusion of the duology when it arrives, and in the meantime, I’ll recommend it readily.
Thankfully, it releases tomorrow, January 21st, so there’s not long to wait before you can place it on your shelf! If you’ve been searching for something to fit the hole in your soul THG left behind, or need a Scorpio Races fix without a reread, this should do it. And if you just like the idea of alchemy tied to horse racing, and the alarming image of horses with sharp teeth, then this is still a book for you!
CW: violence (including gun violence), loss of a loved one, body horror, gore, animal death, graphic injury