Rebuilding After War: An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet

Hallie Hoffmann is sixteen and trying to keep her family farm running with her pregnant sister Marthe—six months after her sister’s husband, Thom, went marched south to fight in the war against a dark god and his irregulars. The war is over, but Thom hasn’t come home and winter is coming. The sisters’ relationship is strained to the breaking point already when a veteran walking up the road hires on through the winter, bringing more with him than just the clothes on his back.

Twisted Things begin appearing on Roadstead Farm again—the creatures of the dark god, thought to be slain in the war by the hero John Balsam—and the politics of families, cities, and armies come crashing together on Hallie and Marthe’s land. At the same time, the sisters are dealing with their own wounds—jagged and unhealed fears left in the wake of their abusive, difficult father—and the strained relationship with the local township that resulted from his behavior in life towards his neighbors. Hallie must look into herself, as well as face down the danger ahead, to save her family and her home.

First things first: An Inheritance of Ashes is remarkably good. I’d go so far as to say that it’s a feast of pleasures, for a particular type of reader—of which I am one. The prose is spectacular, the characters are rich and thoroughly well-realized, the plot moves smoothly between its larger and more intimate concerns, and there’s a distinct balance between the coming-of-age narrative and the broader story of the world recovering after one kind of end, then another. It’s also very much concerned with ways of becoming a better person, both for yourself and the people around you, and owning yourself and your mistakes—as well as learning how to let people in and trust them when life so far has led you to believe you shouldn’t. (Bobet’s previous novel, Above, also dealt beautifully with trauma and recovery; this one, though, speaks more intimately to me.)

The background of this whole thing—before even the war with the dark god—is that the world Hallie lives in is a world after the crash of modern civilization. Windstown is built up in the lee of an old metropolis; Roadstead Farm looks out on the bones of a dead city, an old suspension bridge, and the rusted out remains of cars trapped on it still. The war to the South, which ends six months before the first chapter of the novel proper, is another catastrophe of a different type—but it occurs in a world already beyond our reckoning, already different and full of the remnants of our society but made into something new.

This means that, functionally speaking, Bobet gets to create wholesale a culture and set of rules that in some ways mimic an agricultural rather than technological way of life but if that happened after our moment, today. This means that there are traditional views on courting and family bonding; there are also, unremarked upon, queer marriages and alternative family structures—as well as people of various backgrounds and races sharing a culture among themselves that still has hallmarks and remnants of previous generations. It’s a well-conceived melting-pot that feels tremendously authentic, natural, and significant—all without marking out much special about that at all.

And that’s just the background threading, the pattern that the weave of the novel is set upon.

Some spoilers ahead.

The plot proper, concerning Heron the hired man, the missing Thom, and the reappearance of Twisted Things on the farm, is at once simple and complex. There are cues that are obvious—namely, the fact that Heron is John Balsam—but also directions I didn’t expect. That the presence of Heron and his god-killing knife isn’t magic at all is a delight; I appreciated sincerely that in the end, it’s not about gods and monsters at all. It’s about science, alternate realities and the thin spots between them. Even Asphodel Jones, the Dark God’s prophet, turns out not to be a villain but a man deluded and who did wicked things in the name of that delusion. The novel’s approach at first is fantastic, but in the end, it’s quite realist, concerned with science and experiments and finding solutions with logic rather than superstition.

This is because the world has changed—and it would be easy for the reader to at first think of it as “backwards”—but it isn’t. It’s just different, and the pace of life is different, but the people are still strong and capable and intelligent. There is also an interesting gender equality that pairs up at strange but pleasant corners with what appears to be a somewhat traditionalist society. The Chandler family—a chosen family—are the primary helpers with the problem of the Twisted Things and the portal between worlds; chief among them is Ada, a young girl, their best scientist. Hallie’s courtship with Tyler, also, has interesting callbacks to relationship restrictions and propriety, except in the end, it doesn’t seem to matter much.

And that relationship alone makes the book for me. Tyler and Hallie’s respect for each other, their decisions to take things slowly and naturally and let them happen as they will, is a breath of fresh air not just in a book that’s classed “young adult” but in genre as a whole. I almost couldn’t breathe at her moment of understanding that You can say no… it doesn’t have to mean never. … You can say yes, and it won’t mean always. It’s a healthy attempt at a relationship between two people who are very much not okay—Hallie dealing with the trauma of her abusive father and broken family, Tyler with his memories of the war and his physical trauma as well—but who want to try to be there and be okay for each other.

I have been there, reader, and this is perhaps the most accurate and intimate and understated representation of that kind of sudden blossoming of trust between two people. Bobet has done a stunning job of rendering their relationship with gravity, seriousness, and care. It is as important to the plot as Hallie’s relationship to Heron, who becomes a sort of brotherly figure, and her sister Marthe, who is trying to survive what she believes to be the loss of her husband and potentially, soon, her family land.

Everyone is complex, everyone is sympathetic, and everyone is a little (or a lot) broken. Despite that, they find ways to come together—and in the end, the whole town comes together as well, to stop up the hole between the worlds that Hallie rescues Thom through and to therefore halt the army in its tracks. The ending isn’t just about coming together, either; it’s also about facing internally and finding the parts that are broken, then doing your best to strive past them and own them. Hallie must stop having one foot out the door, ready to run away. Heron must accept that he isn’t anything special—except he is. Tyler must accept that he’s a worthwhile person with his injuries and his strange sight of the world beyond. On down the list, everyone has a fight on their hands. With themselves, with the world, and with the difficulty of surviving. But they make it—and survival comes with trust, kin, and healing.

A smart, beautifully written, and emotionally provocative novel, this one. I’ll come back to it again, that’s for certain. Bobet impresses from start to finish, here, and it’s a fast but immensely satisfying read. (And we haven’t even touched on the prose, which is both simple and almost unbearably handsome.) I’d strongly recommend An Inheritance of Ashes, and it’s definitely one of the things I’ve read this year that I love the most.

An Inheritance of Ashes is available now from Clarion Books.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.

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