Ashes of the Sun is Django Wexler’s seventh epic fantasy novel for adults. Ninth epic fantasy, if you consider his YA series, the Wells of Sorcery (Ship of Smoke and Steel and City of Stone and Silence), to fall into the same genre—and I do.
Ashes of the Sun combines the scale and sweep of Wexler’s six-volume Shadow Campaigns series (The Thousand Names, The Shadow Throne, and sequels) with the creative and appealing worldbuilding weirdness of the Wells of Sorcery, a tight, intense focus on character, and a driving command of pace and tension. On purely technical grounds—prose, structure, pacing—this is Wexler’s best work yet. And it’s good that Wexler’s acknowledgements flags up his Star Wars influence here, because damn if he hasn’t drawn on the Jedi Order and the Old Republic and extended them to the logical (dystopian, fascist, fairly horrifying) conclusion.
In the middling-distant past of this world, there was a war between the “Chosen” and the ghouls. It seems clear that no one exactly won: Chosen and ghouls are both, apparently, gone from the world, and in the wake of that war humans have to deal with creatures known as plagueborn, which live and grow by consuming and assimilating other beings into themselves. In the Dawn Republic, the Twilight Order see themselves as the heirs of the Chosen. Their remit is to hunt down forbidden magic (dhak) and those who use or smuggle it (dhakim) and protect the Dawn Republic from the plagueborn, but the centarchs of the Twilight Order are the only ones who can use the Chosen’s magic (deiat) and have a monopoly on ancient technology, so their power is ultimately, accountable only to themselves.
Ashes of the Sun has two siblings for its protagonists: revolutionary Gyre, who wants to see the whole system burn, and will accept almost any cost if it means eventually holding repressive power to account; and Maya, taken into the Twilight Order as a child and raised to be part of the system that Gyre abhors, whose mentor has inculcated in her a respect for ordinary people and their problems unusual in her peers—and also a high respect for the necessity and honour of the Twilight Order.
At eight years of age, Gyre tried to fight a centarch who was taking his five-year-old sister Maya away to train as one of them. The centarch injured Gyre badly in punishment, destroying the sight of one eye, and this made Gyre absolutely, furiously, certain that no one should have the power to do that on a whim. For him, the Twilight Order are the jackbooted enforcers of a system that prevents ordinary people from advancing on their own merits.
Twelve years after that fateful encounter, Gyre lives in the underground city of Deepfire, working with a crew of thieves and revolutionaries who want to overthrow the corrupt rule of the local dux, Raskos Rottentooth. On the side, he’s tracking down rumours of a ghoul cache, a place that might contain artefacts of sufficient power to challenge the Twilight Order and the Dawn Republic. When he meets Kit Doomseeker, a self-destructive and amoral adrenaline-junkie who claims to have found that cache—and who agrees to take him to it if he and the crew he works with pull off a complicated and difficult heist for her—his choices lead him to prioritise power over loyalty, and to make some startling discoveries. They also lead him into unexpectedly direct confrontation with his sister.
Maya’s mentor has kept her away from the politics of the Twilight Order. But with her mentor sent off on a dangerous solo mission, Maya’s assigned to work with others, and has to navigate the order’s political currents alone. Her latest mission brings her to Deepfire, where she uncovers shocking evidence of corruption and secrets concerning a leader of her order. Isolated, and with few allies other than Beq, a young alchemist with whom she enjoys a mutual attraction, she’s forced to confront her order and prove her worth through a potentially-fatal duel—and pursue a mentor who may have betrayed everything she brought Maya up to believe in.
Ashes of the Sun works on an epic scale. There’s layers of history, and magnificent cool shit, and corrupt systems of power that still contain honourable people doing their best. But as a story, its real weight is in the personal: Gyre’s choices and personal connections, including his—unmalicious, but nevertheless—betrayal of friends because he finds other things more important; Maya’s coming of age and her reckoning with her order as not completely the font of all righteousness that she wants to believe it is, and her slow, tentative, youthful beginnings of a romance with Beq despite all obstacles. These are compelling characters, with compelling journeys, and though Ashes of the Sun gives a satisfying conclusion, it’s clear that this is only the beginning of a larger story.
One that will almost certainly include revolution, because I’ve yet to read an epic fantasy by Django Wexler that’s not invested in changing old systems for better ones.
Ashes of the Sun has scale and pace, and tension and batshit cool scenery, and I enjoyed it a hell of lot. (It’s also queer as hell: that’s always a nice bonus.) And I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Ashes of the Sun is available from Orbit.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.