In Ashes Lie
By Marie Brennan
Published by Orbit, June 2009
435 pages (plus extras)
Review by Mark Yon.
Midnight Never Come, a tale of Faerie and Monarchy at the time of Elizabeth I, was one of my favourite novels of last year. In this traditionally more difficult second novel, Marie moves forward a few hundred years, from Elizabethan England to the times of Charles I.
This should be an exciting time, historically. Without going too deeply into historical details, (but for those who perhaps don’t know), it was a time of revolution and change in England. It was a period of civil war, with those supporting Charles I fighting against those supporting elected Parliament, a choice that split regions, towns, villages and families. Ultimately it led to the death of a King, a time of national unrest when ‘the world was turned upside down’, compounded by the fact that the Civil War was followed by plague and, at its demise, the Great Fire of London in 1666.
All of this is here. Even if it were fiction and not fact, this should make a great tale. After my enjoyment of MNC I was looking forward to In Ashes Lie a great deal. Unfortunately, a number of issues meant that, in the end, the book changed from being an enjoyable one to a frustrating one, and stopped me enjoying this as much as I would’ve liked.
There are some parts of this book which I thought were good. Marie has quite deliberately not made this a carbon-copy of Midnight Never Come. Whereas in MNC the tale is about maintaining stability and order at the Onyx Court, through the Faerie Queen Invidiana, and above ground through Elizabeth I, here the tale is about change, disruption and chaos, with the revolutions above ground being mirrored by the difficulties under ground. Lune has now become the Faerie Queen since Invidiana’s demise. It is not easy, as Lune is determined to rule in a different manner to that of her cruel predecessor. Thus Lune is not just seeking to maintain stability but to survive with all the disruption, both in the Faerie domain and without.
There are other major changes as well. At the start of In Ashes Lie, Lune’s lover in MNC, Michael Deven, is now dead and she has taken on a consort, Sir Anthony Ware, the Prince of the Stone, in order to maintain her sworn link with the London above. This is a non-sexual relationship. Anthony has a wife above ground who knows nothing of his responsibilities other than those at Parliament.
Lune’s difficulties at the Onyx court are also complex. Nicneven, the Queen of the Scottish Court, is waging a war between them, whilst the Irish court seems to be railing against the poor treatment of the Irish by the English and the non-intervention policy of the Onyx Court.
All of this suggests that the faerie events within, and the historical events without, are setting themselves up for a great tale. It is true that there is political positioning, diplomacy, overt aggression, betrayal, and loyalty here. The book broadens the tapestry upon which the previous events were set. And yet, in the end, I felt that Marie’s book failed to make the most of its rich background, both real and unreal, here.
What happens instead is that first third of the book bogs itself down with details that, although useful, lack the focus needed to engage the reader with the tale. We are introduced to new and old characters, though at times the broader range led me to feel that some of the characters were a little bland and interchangeable. Anthony Ware is no Michael Deven, nor is Lune another Invidiana, though as the tale develops there are signs of the other-worldliness that we saw in MNC. Nevertheless, at times the interchangeable nature of some of the blander characters in a complex plot may at least confuse and at worst deter some readers from finishing. Though the plot motivations were good, the characterisation, especially at the beginning, was less so.
This complexity is not helped further by the stylistic jiggery-pokery of moving chapters between events of 1639-48 and 1666, which does little to improve the tale. This led me on more than one occasion to have to check my mental timeline as what had happened, was happening and when rather than concentrate on the plot. I do think that, unusually, this is a book that would’ve benefitted from a more linear narrative, rather than the multi-stranded non-linear display that we have here. It was perhaps these elements that made the book less successful for me than the first, which, although were used in the first, did not deter me there.
However, after all the political shenanigans and posturing of the first 100 pages or so, the events around the death of Charles I (when ‘the world turned upside down’), things step up a gear. Lune’s life is threatened by an attempted coup which means that she has to use her wits to survive and at one point actually leave London for a few years. However as the Monarchy recovers, so does Lune, and so remains Queen until the events of the Fire of London in 1666.
There are lots of qualities here that, despite its weaknesses for me, elevate this book above many. The tone of the book is as rich as the first. The dialogue is well done, the use of historical details and places superb, the complexities of life above and below ground suitably intricate. And yet, in the end, though I enjoyed the book, I found this one less successful than the first.
It is never easy marrying historical facts with fiction. Weaker writers spend their time displaying their research rather than developing plot, or spent their time developing plot by using contemporary mannerisms rather than giving contextually coherent features. Marie is excellent at marrying history with her characters. There is still an excellent sense of place here, both in the world above and the Faerie domain. Unfortunately some of the complications told here (in what was, admittedly, a complicated time for England) do little else but to slow the plot. The author has taken a brave step in trying to show the reader what was happening politically in England in the 1600’s, but I do feel that, sadly, as a result these elements made the book a little more difficult, and dare I say, duller to read than it should.
If the reader keeps going, there are parts that are fabulous. The events around the Fire of London are very well done. Lune’s enforced departure from the capital city broadens the tale and brings a breath of fresh air to what was becoming a rather claustrophobic tale at that point. The ending is appropriate, though not as satisfactory as I had hoped.
In summary, then, a brave novel, but a limited success rather than a total one, sad to say. If you enjoyed the first then there is much to enjoy here, but be prepared for rather lengthy and complicated exposition that may discourage some readers.
This novel can be read on its own, and does have considerable merit, though I did not, in the end, enjoy it myself as much as the first.
However I do look forward to the next.
Mark Yon, August 2009.