Ember and Ash
There’s a fine line between including just enough details in a story and falling into the trap of including too much. It’s trickier if this question arises about a quest tale, as the author also has to balance the amount of action with the amount of “Look at all the cool stuff”. Pamela Freeman’s Ember and Ash is one of those novels that seesaws back and forth over that line, but ultimately comes out a little bit ahead on the readability scale.
Ember, daughter of the Last Domain’s warlord, is about to get married and begin her life as a warlord’s wife. But during the wedding, the Power of Fire makes himself known and claims Ember as his own. When she defies him, he takes fire away from the clan and declares that only by going to the Fire Mountain can Ember reclaim fire for her people.
Accompanied by several others, including her adopted cousin Ash, Ember sets out for the distant mountain. Along the way, every member of the party will be tested in various ways. The Powers of this land have begun to stir, and mere mortal politics and desires are no match for the anger of the very wind and water that humans need to survive.
As I mentioned at the start of this review, it’s easy to include too much detail in a novel. Once you start a massive quest, it can get even harder, as the temptation to describe and interact with every portion of your created land seems to overwhelm some authors. I’ve taken to dubbing it “Robert Jordan syndrome”, after the writer of the Wheel of Time series, who took so much time following absolutely everyone and everything that he left one character under a house for a book and a half.
Ember and Ash definitely falls prey to this tendency in the earlier chapters. At one point, there are at least five different characters with their own storylines, almost all of them in different locations and doing different things. It breaks up the action in a way that was somewhat distracting. Eventually, though, most of the characters are in one of two locations and stay there for the remainder of the book. Once that happens, the narration flows more smoothly.
However, another aspect of this problem is the temptation to have cool things happen simply because they’re cool. I couldn’t help but feel that as Ember’s party navigated the early parts of their journey, things happened to them simply for the sake of whittling down the party to a manageable level. And in the process, the author used the opportunity to show some pretty magic. For instance, one character spends a good amount of time apparently hearing the voices of the forest that they’re all walking through. It’s harped on enough that I thought it would be important. But what actually happens is that the character turns into a plant and isn’t mentioned again. There was no reason, plot-wise, for this to have happened, so it felt like it was included just because it was a neat thing to write.
When the worldbuilding is kept under control, it’s a rich and vibrant environment. It’s easy for readers to visualize the terrain and the different places that the characters travel through. Once the author finds her stride and balances between description and action, the worldbuilding does a lot to accentuate the plot.
Freeman is at her best when she’s delving into the source of the enmity between the Last Domain and the realm of the Ice King, long-time enemies. She especially excels at making the supposedly villainous residents of the Ice King’s realm into sympathetic people with logical reasons for their actions. In this, the author doesn’t go over-heavy on the politics, but instead concentrates on why broad-sweeping actions may have been occurring. Since this tale seems like it’s going to be confined to one novel only, a deeper level of detail isn’t needed.
Overall, once this novel finds its stride, it’s enjoyable and filled with rich and colorful detail. Ember and Ash has a few flaws, but ultimately it delivers an interesting and multi-layered story.
This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on May 31, 2011.