A review by its_justine
We Men of Ash and Shadow, by HL Tinsley

dark emotional medium-paced


It is an unfortunate truth of the world that people will always want to soil beautiful things. They cannot simply let them be. It is why there will always be footprints in the freshly fallen snow. Flowers will grow from the earth and somebody will always want to pluck off the petals.

Change drifts on the wings of revolution in We Men of Ash and Shadow, HL Tinsley's gritty and captivating Dark Fantasy debut. With flavors of mystery noir, this book tells of a city firmly crushed under the boot of tyranny, while the whispers of an uprising begin to emerge from the underground. A tale whose tone is built upon crippling misplaced guilt and the foreign concept of redemption, Tinsley crafts an investigation that takes its readers along a path paved with lies and blood. In order to attempt to restore a city to its former glory, one must choose a side. But doing so could lead to catastrophic consequences.

This story takes place in the city of D'Orsee, a dark, subdued setting in a constant state of unrest, where everyone and everything has its place. The city itself is blanketed in gloom and apathy where its denizens can move neither up nor down, only side to side. The affluent live in comfort in the Golden Quarter, while those less fortunate are restricted to the Black Zone. The latter consists of various districts each defined with unique decrees, but most are likely to turn a blind eye to the chaos. There are many secrets waiting to be unearthed, but it's imperative to keep an eye on those shadow-laden alleyways as you attempt to do so. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in D'Orsee, and would've loved to have learned a bit more about its history and what keeps the wheels of the machine turning.

D'Orsee is filled to the brim with finely crafted characters that happily reside in the morally gray realm – in a city so despicable, the only way to survive is to play by its rules. We witness events unfurl through the eyes of two men who share a common thread. John Vanguard takes center stage, war veteran turned hired murderer with the ability to hide in plain sight. During his preparations for a particular job, he crosses paths with Tarryn Leersac, a damaged young man barely keeping the monster at bay. Although haunted by memories of war, Vanguard is a relatively reliable narrator that I grew to love and found easy to empathize with. On the other hand, Tarryn's account of events is generally illustrated by his deep-rooted psychosis, and while he initially appears a victim, his true colors quickly reveal themselves.

Vanguard was not pain and torture, he was not suffering. Vanguard was the split second between life and death; the instant where you saw your life flash before your eyes and you knew, completely and definitively, that you deserved to be where you were right at that moment.

The pasts of Vanguard and Tarryn unveil themselves to readers in glimpses and memories, but the majority of their development occurs during their interactions with secondary characters. In terms of characterization, this is where Tinsley shines. Each auxiliary character has their own dedicated moment in the spotlight, and each is beautifully utilized to deepen our understanding of the main characters. Dialogue, both internal and external, is absolutely fantastic; whether we're presented with delicious snark to lighten the mood or moments of pained emotion and introspection, it's too easy to appreciate any and all of these instances. There are quite a few moving pieces in this relatively short novel, but the cohesion the author creates between them is superb.

Much like the setting, the majority of the conflict and action is subdued, but no less visceral than an exemplary epic battle. The city's citizens exist on a knife's edge, both literally and figuratively, and the threats of danger and death lurk around each and every corner. Rather than explosive annihilation, Tinsley employs a more roguish approach to gradual ruin. Plotting, intrigue, cruelty, deceit, treachery, all the mechanisms to make you truly loath those pulling the strings. However, once the story reaches its climax, the tone seamlessly transitions into a glorious and turbulent storm of violence and gut-wrenching tragedy. I found this shift to be perfectly executed, the subtle building of tension until the cord finally snaps.

Tinsley pens this tale with strong continuity between the setting, characters, and plot, and I found the way it's portrayed to be strangely charming. There's a level of immersion that violently drags readers down into the grit alongside her unfortunate cast, something I always appreciate in any novel I read. Rather than being told what's happening, you're being shown, you're feeling it happen. My only issue with the writing itself lies in the lack of transitions – POV shifts and time jumps occur from one paragraph to another without warning, which often disturbed the flow of this remarkably written narrative.

"We are men of ash and shadow. We endure the darkness so that others might see the dawn."

We Men of Ash and Shadow is a fascinating delve into the criminal underbelly of a repressed people, as well as an authentic examination of the psychological effects of war and cruelty. While the story itself ties up nicely, the final pages mark the beginning of the next leg of our journey to right the wrongs that plague D'Orsee. Tinsley's debut is a solid foundation for a potentially exceptional series, and I'm very much looking forward to seeing where she takes us next. I highly recommend.