Quick caveat for this review: I read this book after another set in this same world that will be released a month after this review goes live. This means I have some pretty significant backstory about this world and some of these characters that fresh readers will not. As always, I do my best to avoid spoilers, but it’s not possible to separate how that knowledge affects my interpretation of this story. (Either way, I encourage readers to give both of these postapocalyptic urban fantasy epics a chance.) Before I read the other book, however, I heard Gray read the first chapter of Ashes of Regret at a convention and I was immediately hooked on this world. I made one prediction after the reading, which the author confirmed. Little did I expect how much more nuanced and amazing the actual story is, even though my wish was technically correct.
Though the main character of this book is a 19-year-old woman, don’t pigeonhole this series into the young adult category. Because pretty much the first thing Tamaki does is to force the ghost of a guy who might have been her boyfriend into the body of a fox that she rescues from a carnivorous tree that has been mutated thanks to the cataclysm of Mesopotamian gods returning to earth. But here’s the interesting bit: the magic Tamaki uses here is not a power born from the gods, but has existed in humanity since long before the gods were locked away. I was immediately invested in how the dichotomy of those two power sources would play out in the story to come, especially when Tamaki also accidentally uses blood magic. Experienced fantasy readers know that power from blood is never a good idea, and how Tamaki reacts to using necromancy changes her from the typical fantasy heroine to an intriguing multifaceted character. I might not want to be her friend, but I did want to see where her story went from here. Especially since Tamaki is immediately punished for her use of blood magic and ends up in a very different world from the one I’d already explored in this series.
The fox ends up along for the ride, and Scott (now Scout) is just as unimpressed by Tamaki’s assumptions about their potential future as I am. He is very much the “grownup” in this book, an excellent foil to Tamaki’s fiery character. I especially appreciated the scenes we get from Scout’s point of view, which do an excellent job of showing how the actual, poignant, friendship between them develops. However, Scout is not the typical magical guide of fantasy tropes. Despite his present circumstances, he is as human as Tamaki and forced to make decisions in a world that neither could have imagined experiencing.
Another interesting dichotomy that Gray sets up in this book is the two “worlds” Tamaki and Scout must survive. In the first, they are forced into the lower class of a territory ruled by gods. The term civilization is thrown around a lot, but it’s obvious that these so-called gods are just as petty as most humans in the way they acquire and hold on to power. Gray plays with contemporary issues in a way that doesn’t feel like the author is preaching about political ideals so much as showing the reader exactly how ridiculous it is when people attempt to set themselves higher than others. Once Tamaki escapes this territory, she finds herself on the opposite end of the spectrum, as a person with magical power in a human-ruled society of supposed equals. But humans don’t change just because the apocalypse has occured, and despite how Tamaki does try to see the good in her new circumstances, it becomes impossible to ignore the significant issues she faces in this society as well.
Here’s the thing I loved the most about this book: Tamaki is just as human as everyone else, with all her perks and flaws. She may be the heroine of this book, but she’s not the white hat. The choices she makes during every main transition in this story aren’t always the best, and they are certainly not always good. Not even all of her primary intentions could be viewed that way, and even when so much is stripped away from her and Scout at the very end, Gray remains committed to writing a fantasy world that sticks to shades of gray. The ends didn’t always justify the means of the choices Tamaki makes along the way, and her ending is very reminiscent of that consistent throughline for her character. This story doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, but it is nonspecific enough to ensure that we will see Tamaki again in this series and that I can’t wait to see what further changes are in store for her and Scout.
Disclaimer: I received a digital review copy of this book from the author.