Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack
Ember and Ash is a standalone novel set in the same world as the Castings trilogy. This novel is set about twenty years after the events of the trilogy; some characters who appeared in the earlier novels play a small part here, but you would be able to read and enjoy the novel in total ignorance of the trilogy. There is some background to the world which would have greater depth and resonance if you’d read the trilogy, but again I think you could get by well enough without it.
Ember and Ash opens as Ash makes a choice which will make little sense to the reader initially, but which will mean a great deal later in the novel. More immediately, the reader’s interest is caught by his cousin Ember’s upcoming wedding; the action quickly moves to her wedding day. And what a wedding day. Her husband is murdered by the angry god Fire, who then steals fire from all the lands. Without fire, her people will soon die, so Ember embarks on a quest to Fire Mountain to steal fire, just as the legendary Mim did so long ago.
Ember does not travel alone; she is accompanied by a small band of friends and protectors, including her cousins Ash and Cedar. This will be a journey that tests them all, including in ways they had not expected when they set out. And few of them will end the journey in the way or place they had expected.
In fact, one of the strengths of this novel is that it ends in a way that is both quite unexpected and yet perfectly foreshadowed. It makes complete sense given the characters involved, and earlier events; but somehow it’s still not where you expected Freeman to lead her characters.
As with her earlier work, strong characters are a highlight of this novel. As the title suggests, Ember and Ash are the central characters, but a number of others are equally important. These include Ember’s parents, Arvid and Martine. It is these two who give us the greatest insight into what is happening ‘back home’ while Ember is on her quest. Their struggles show us what the cost will be if Ember does not succeed, and fire is no longer available to her people. Freeman has thought this through very carefully. At first glance you think, well, it’ll be cold. But Freeman has considered all the implications of a lack of fire in a pre-technological society, and gradually unfolds them for the reader. The enormity of the loss dawns on us as it dawns on the characters of the novel.
Freeman draws realistic, vibrant characters, but also puts great emotional honesty into her depiction of the relationships between them. Loving, prickly, brittle, sometimes violently opposed. We understand what’s going on between these characters, and in most cases we empathise strongly. You won’t agree with every character or every action, but you’ll understand what they’re feeling, why they’re acting the way they are, and how that impacts on those around them and their relationships. The relationships hold a great deal of the emotional impact of this novel. There is a strong, involving plot, and you’ll care how it turns out – but you’ll care mostly because you care about the people. It’s not an intellectual exercise, it’s about people’s lives.
Ember and Ash is a really enjoyable, satisfying read. It’s enjoyable while you’re reading it, catching and keeping the reader’s interest with little trouble, and when you’re finished it’s very satisfying to have experienced such a good book. The characters are vivid and empathetic, the plot makes sense but still surprises, and the world is real. Those who’ve read the Castings trilogy will get some extra depth and resonances from this book; those who haven’t will probably want to search it out after finishing this novel. I highly recommend this.