Kings of Ash by Richard Nell

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Rating 9.4/10
A rare and unforgettable sequel that exceeds its predecessor.

We all should be familiar with the old saying, “time heals all wounds.” Speaking from personal experience, that’s not always true. Physical wounds leave scars, and emotional wounds linger in the mind. And although some details might fade over time, the pain doesn’t ever really disappear – you just learn to manage it. But what if your memory was flawless? What if, decades later, you can still remember what the wind smelled like when you held your dying mother in your arms? Or if you recall the exact pitch and tone of every innocent scream that was silenced by your blade? If every mistake, every decision, and every moment of your life were preserved in perfect state, forever accessible – is it ever possible to heal from your wounds?

This is what Ruka faces every waking moment. His gift of eidetic memory is both a blessing and a curse. Yet his preternatural abilities don’t end there; his mind is so expansive and far-reaching that there is an evolving society with its own rules of science and nature that exists solely in his thoughts. His body is occupied by two personalities: Ruka the thinker and planner, and Bukayag the barbaric cannibal, renegade leader, and ruthless killer. A constant battle is waged inside Ruka’s mind: there are times he can control his baser impulses, but other times he lets Bukayag ‘take over’ when the situation calls for it. The results aren’t pretty, but they are effective. This is a credo that Ruka has grown quite comfortable with.

It is of my opinion that Ruka is the most fascinating character in all of fantasy. There has never been a character quite so unpredictable, so driven, and so dedicated to his own agenda that he’ll sacrifice anything to achieve it. One of the more interesting facets of his personality is that while he believes the ends justify the means, he fully expects a reckoning for his actions. Ruka has tortured his followers, killed innocents, and committed terrible crimes; some were in defense of his life, but many were not. His follower Egil once said that Ruka is not a good man, but he might be a great man. Someone who burns so bright that he will change the world and challenge the gods. Ruka philosophizes that he will likely suffer in eternity for his actions, yet still deems his journey worthwhile. He may have the power of a god, but he still contemplates an eternity of punishment. This vulnerability helped me to further connect with Ruka’s humanity, which is a neat trick to pull off, considering we first meet Ruka whilst eating a dead child. Nell somehow manages to make me both love and hate Ruka, to both understand and question him, and somehow root for him to succeed even though he has done so many awful things. It’s a true testament to Nell’s incredible gifts as a writer to instill such powerful feelings of sympathy for such a complex and haunting character.

There are many moments of Kings of Ash, book two in Richard Nell’s brilliant “Ash and Sand” trilogy, that are truly shocking. I do not say this lightly or with any degree of hyperbole. Once again, Nell plays with a multiple-timeline narrative and the reader’s expectations are upended – not once, but several times over. There are game-changing events that completely shatter the direction you think the book is headed, and these events occur early and surprisingly often. There are extraordinary revelations that tie the first book to this sequel, and how it all fits together into a larger, seamless tapestry. Nell’s intricate plotting deserves special recognition as the early seeds of the story grow into meaningful and satisfying payoffs. This book somehow makes Kings of Paradise even better, as it fills in the narrative gaps in the story you didn’t know existed. Minor characters are thrust into center stage, and major players are relegated to the sidelines; while Kings of Paradise splits its focus between Ruka and Kale, Kings of Ash keeps Ruka in the spotlight for most of its duration.

And that is a good thing. Nothing against Kale, but this is Ruka’s story. And as exciting as the various shock-inducing plot revelations are, it is first and foremost a character-based story, with Ruka’s emotional journey driving the narrative. In the many months and dozens of books I’ve read in between Kings of Paradise and Kings of Ash, there hasn’t been any character that I’ve thought about more than Ruka. He has set up a secondary Grove and taken residence in my head. I find myself trying to relate to his decisions if I had his kind of power, and how I’d react if I were suffering from the same environmental and emotional trials that he has faced.

I’ve spent most of this review discussing Ruka without divulging much of the plot. This is entirely intentional, as I do not wish to take anything away from the author by revealing something before its intention. Nell is one of fantasy’s most underrated (for now) talents, and I find it difficult to fathom how good this series is coming from an author so early in his career. I can only imagine what heights the future has in store for Nell, but I selfishly hope it consists solely of writing Kings of Heaven for now. In Kings of Ash, Nell has crafted a rare and unforgettable sequel that exceeds its predecessor. It will surprise and haunt you, while playing your emotions like an unfinished symphony. I give this series my highest recommendation. 

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