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“Losing [the Race] will accomplish the same as winning would. They are going to kill you, Adrian Ford. And when they kill the favorite son of the Reach, it will start a revolution. Victor or martyr, your father gets his war,” The Dread. –Ashlords
by Scott Reintgen
Ever since the Ashlords were gifted phoenix horses by their gods, they’ve raced them into battle, on hunts, and now at the world-renowned Races.
Elite riders from clashing cultures vie to be crowned champion by honing their ability to create and control phoenix horses, which are made of ash and alchemy—they’re summoned to life each sunrise and burst into flames each sunset. But good alchemy only matters if a rider knows how to survive the brutal nights. While murder is outlawed, breaking bones and poisoning the ashes of your competition are legal, even encouraged. Eleven riders will compete in this year’s races, but three of them have more to lose than the rest.
Imelda is a Dividian—too poor to afford the cost of entry until her alchemy videos created a media storm that throws her headfirst into the competition as a fan favorite.
Pippa is an Ashlord—the ruling class—and the expected winner. But when she falls for a competitor, will she ruin her chances of inheriting the crown?
Adrian is a Longhand—known for their vast wealth and failed rebellion. He is a symbol of revolution and the last chance for his people to rise against the Ashlords.
Ashlords is an intense book that questions the role of the ruling class, the Ashlords. The story is told from the point of view of three characters—Imelda, Pippa, and Adrian. While Imelda’s and Adrian’s chapters are written in the first-person point of view, Pippa’s chapters are written in the second-person point of view. While this helps distinguish Pippa from the other characters, using “you” is disconcerting. And even though the reader understands the characters’ motives, none of them are relatable.
In the process of setting up the Ashlords’ world, Reintgen piles on a lot of information about the characters’ complicated society. In addition, there are many references to the Ashlords’ gods helping them win a war, but the backstory isn’t fully developed, which causes confusion. Some readers will struggle with the amount of information that is packed into the first part of the book.
Readers who are drawn to the Ashlords in the hopes of reading a good horse story will be disappointed. Instead of focusing on the horses, the Race’s brutal fight scenes take center stage. The book’s descriptions of the Ashlords’ religion and politics also becomes tedious. While the book discusses class differences, the reason the Longhands want to revolt is unclear. Ashlords focus is on the impending revolution and the violence of the Race. If you want a good horse story without violence and war, Ashlords is not the book for you.
- On Imelda’s birthday, an Ashlord overlord named Oxanos forces Imelda to dance with him. Imelda dances with him but embarrasses him during the dance. She thinks, “He asked for the dance, and we all know how he intended it to go. He wanted to press his hips to mine for a few minutes. He wanted to make my father’s skin crawl, to bury my family’s honor with a smile.”
- A group meet in order to plan a rebellion, but Maggie confesses to being a traitor. After Maggie grabs a knife, Adrian brings his “elbow up and across. The blow sends her staggering to the ground. . . I have the sword at her neck. She goes still, her chest heaving, eyes wide and defeated.” Maggie’s fate is not disclosed.
- Pippa is giving an interview when a viewer takes control of a mannequin. “The mannequin lunges out of its chair. . . Your eyes widen as the metallic hand reaches for your throat. . . The machine’s fail safe system hums to life and the hands hang lifelessly in the air, just a few inches from your neck.”
- In the past, a Longhand entered the Races but, “He was beaten to death just before the second leg began. A team of Ashlords took their time killing him.” The showman who interviewed the Longhand was also killed.
- After a rebellion, the Ashlords “purged” the Longhands by killing everyone who fought against them as well as 907 first-born children. Adrian’s mother was a first born who was hiding. Adrian’s father “killed the first Ashlord they sent for her. . . She took the blame when they came back since they were going to take her anyway.” The Ashlords kill her, but the death is not described.
- The Race is a bloody battle to the finish line. Contestants aren’t allowed to kill each other, but violence is expected. The below excerpts do not contain all of the book’s violence.
- During the Race, Revel, an Ashlord contestant, attacks Adrian. Adrian’s whip “snakes through the air and snaps along the back of Revel’s neck. Revel cries out in agony.” The horses “collide—our legs smashing between flanks—as my horse rips into the neck of Revel’s phoenix. The impact shoves us back apart, but not without blood. It sprays through the air and my horse trembles with excitement.” Revel slows down and stays behind Adrian.
- Pippa’s boyfriend, Bravos, kills his phoenix. Bravos “sets a trusting hand on the creature’s neck and puts his full weight into a deadly thrust. Metal bites through muscle and past bone, finding its mark. There’s a single, terrible scream.”
- During the race, Adrian goes to pass Imelda and he brings “the switch across her temple. It’s far from a killing blow, but more than enough to spin her unconscious to the ground.” When Imelda wakes up, she has “a knot on [her] head that’s the size of an apple. I rub at it and wince. Still light-headed, I stumble over to my ashes. . .” Imelda discovers that her horse’s ashes have been poisoned.
- A group of Ashlords ride up to Adrian. One of the contestants uses her whip to try to get Adrian to “move me right or left. . . I [Adrian] let the whip catch me across the shoulder as I step into a brutal strike of my own. . . My blow crushes the side of her knee, and there’s enough force behind it to shatter everything. Her screams tear the night in two. . .” The other two Ashlords ignore their fallen comrade and instead, go after Adrian. “Two shots to the ribs, another glancing blow off my shoulder.”
- The Ashlords and Adrian continue to try to injure each other. The girl is “finally back on her feet, and her eyes go wide when she sees me coming. She thrust her baton up, but I sweep low and smash her knee a second time. She screams.” Finally, Adrian stumbles and the two remaining Ashlords attack him. “A shot to the head, quick and dazing. A second to the ribs, a third to the knee. They can’t swing as hard as I can, but that doesn’t stop them from turning me into something small.” When Adrian can no longer fight back, the Ashlords go to help their friend.
- Adrian sneaks into a cave where the Ashlords are camping for the night. Adrian attacks the closest one, a boy named Capri. “My lowered shoulder shoves him accidentally toward the edge. He screams and I reach for him in a panic, trying to keep him from falling. . . He vanishes with a scream.”
- After Capri is out of the way, Adrian attacks the next boy. “I sweep the blow left with my off-hand and punch my own baton into his throat. The wood catches him hard and folds him in on himself. . . I bring the switch down on his knee, then his hip, then his nose. There’s no mercy in the strength of my arm or in the accuracy of each strike.” When the boy is unconscious, Adrian leaves.
- Imelda leaves the Race route and the Ashlords come after her. But Imelda’s people—a group of desert Dividian’s—appear. Both sides begin shooting at each other. Imelda watches “the desperados break forward, then scatter away from the oncoming Ashlord. Her sword bites down, past a raised spear and sends blood splaying out from the throat. The man dies. . .” The battle is described over several chapters and men on both sides die.
- While traveling through a cave, Pippa discovers an angry wraith. Pippa brandishes a whip. “A crack sounds as the blow lands just above the wraith’s right eye. It snarls.” Pippa whips the wraith several more times and then “the beast disappears.”
- When Capri steals Adrian’s purebred phoenix, his horse geos up in flames. Adrian “can hear Capri’s screams. The heat’s so intense that I have to stop well away. All I can do is watch as fire consumes both horse and rider.”
- While racing to the finish line, Adrian was close to winning. But then, “a girl’s ghostly features darken by a savage growl. I’m helpless as an invisible arm wraps around my neck, and the impact wrenches my feet from the stirrups, and something tears me out of the saddle.” Adrian is not injured, but he loses the Race.
Drugs and Alcohol
- At a birthday party, the men drink whiskey.
- While talking about his wife’s death, Adrian’s father “takes a long swallow of wine.”
- During a racing event, a stranger gives Adrian a drink. When the man isn’t looking, Adrian switches drinks. After taking a drink of the poisoned drink, the stranger dies.
- During the Race several of the horse’s ashes are poisoned.
- Damn and hell are used occasionally.
- Gods and dear gods are used as an exclamation occasionally.
- A man asks Adrian, “How are you liking this pisshole?”
- When Imelda’s horse’s ashes are poisoned, she says, “Wormwood. That jackass used wormwood.”
- Phoenix horses were gifts from the Ashlords’ gods. The phoenixes are made of ash and alchemy, and people mix different components into the horse’s ashes to bring out specific characteristics. Imelda mixes different components into the phoenix’s ashes and then “sunlight spills over the plain. I take a step back and hear the obvious gasp of a creature coming to life. My pile of ash stirs within movement. . . I see my phoenix starting to take form, a dark inconsistent mass. . . I shield my eyes as a glorious figure staggers free of the storm.”
- At a birthday party, the Dividian children try to catch a dreamnot. When the dreamnots are touched, they disappear. “Only one of the dreamnots in the room is actually the real one. Tradition says that the child who catches it gets to make a wish.” When someone wishes on a dreamnot, “his wish will not come true unless he sets it free again.”
- The Dividians sailed to the Ashlord’s “land centuries ago, intending to conquer. Only we failed. With the help of their gods, the Ashlords defeated our ancestors.”
- The Ashlords “bow to the gods,” but the Dividians and the Longhand do not worship the Ashlord gods. The Longhands do not worship the gods because the “Ashlord gods offer many things, freedom is not one of them. It is a relationship of bondage.” The Longhands also refuse to make blood sacrifices to the gods.
- The Ashlord gods include: Fury, the god of strength and bravery; Curiosity, the god who wakes, watches and whispers; The Butcher, the Hoarder, and the Dread. Plus, the creator of progress, the Striving.
- The Ashlords believe the “Brightness” is the “people’s link to the gods themselves.”
- One of the Ashlord gods, The Dread, takes over a priest’s body. Adrian sees “the disturbing scars that start at the base of the priest’s neck. A scaled mast treads directly into the skin. Those protective scales enclose the human head completely.”
- The Dread offers Adrian a boon. The Dread explains, “The blessing I just offered will bring swift healing. Sturdier bones. Less bleeding. It will keep you alive.”
- Pippa’s mother wakes her in the dead of the night and takes her though a secret passage. Pippa’s mother makes a blood sacrifice. The god “gives an approving nod as she holds it [her hand] out over the alter. In the light of your candle, blood drips over the stones. The Madness licks his lips, tongue slavering.” Pippa’s mother cuts her and adds her blood to the stones.”
- Pippa is upset that her mother uses a blood sacrifice. Her mother says, “The gods move between our world and the one below. . . In the underworld, our blood gives them power. They take our sacrifices and use them to rule those forsaken lands. In return, they offer us the powers of their world.” The scene is described over three pages.
- During the Race, a spirit of a girl appears to Pippa. In exchange for her freedom, the spirit agrees to help Pippa win the race. The spirit can sometimes hear Pippa’s thoughts.
- After Imelda’s horse is poisoned, Adrian prayed that Imelda “doesn’t get herself killed” by riding the horse.