Ash and Silver
by Carol Berg
Ash and Silver put Carol Berg on my list of authors to watch. The world she creates is rich, the plot expansive, and the magical and social systems intricate and complex. Ash and Silver is the second book a series, but it was the first book-- and indeed the only book by the author-- that I've read. I actually think the book may be more enjoyable without the context of the first. The protagonist, who goes by Greenshank, is a paratus of the reclusive and mysterious Equites Cinere, whose members must not only renounce all ties to the outside world, but even their very memories of it. I started the book very much like Greenshank: utterly unaware of who he once was and what he had once done. I think it made the slow reveal of his past far more interesting and probably quite a bit less frustrating.
As is clear from the first few pages, Greenshank is a Very Special Person with a Very Special Role in the world, despite his inability to remember the smallest bit of it. He's also spectacular at almost everything he does. If you're opposed to Chosen Ones, this may be something of a trial, but despite my general dislike of the trope, I found myself captivated by the mystery and intrigue of the story. The plot itself is slow-paced and involves the slow intertwining of disparate threads, plus various betrayals, schemes, plots, and adventures. Not all of it necessarily makes sense-- there was one bit in particular whose illogic niggled at me throughout the story-- but even so, I found the eventual resolution satisfying.(show spoiler)
For me, the most interesting aspects of the book were the themes that Berg explored. The Equites Cinere makes heavy use of mind-altering magic; not only does it brutally strip its initiates of their pasts, but it uses smaller memory charms to erase itself from the memories of any commonfolk who come into contact with it. The initiates' minds aren't safe even after they are robbed of all identity, for each subsequent mission may also be stolen away. Greenshank generally is accepting of these practices, but I was far less sanguine. Does wiping away one's memory also remove the personality? It's a question that Berg explores in depth. The other major theme of the story is a familiar one, but no less knotty for that: can the end ever really justify the means? As one character puts it:
"Is it righteous to achieve great ends no matter the cost?"
I have no idea what this book would be like if you actually read the previous book in the series, but as a first entry to the world, it was thoroughly enjoyable. I'm looking forward to seeing how later events shape my view of the first book, and I'll definitely keep an eye out for Berg's future imaginings.
~~I received this book through Netgalley from the publisher, Penguin Group Berkeley, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes are taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the nature of the novel as a whole.~~