Tropes are Good, Actually: Ashes of Gold by J. Elle

The duology begins with Wings of Ebony and Rue struggling to find her place in her new life. A bold Black girl raised in the East Row (a fictionalized version of Houston, Texas’ Third Ward) Rue and her younger half-sister Tasha were separated after their mother was killed by an unknown assailant. Rue’s biological father, a man she had never met and knew almost nothing about, took her to Ghizon, a magical world off the coast of Madagascar, and left Tasha behind. A year later, Rue has access to magic but feels isolated. Nearly everyone in Ghizon has gray skin, making her stand out even more. In their highly stratified society, Rue fits in nowhere…and doesn’t want to.

Back in East Row, Tasha gets caught up in something dangerous. Rue uncovers a murderous crime ring dealing drugs and ruining the lives of Black and brown teens like it’s nothing. To save her sister, Rue will have to break every Ghizoni rule. But things in Ghizon aren’t going well, either. The Chancellor and his attack dog the General have it out for her for reasons Rue doesn’t quite understand. When Rue discovers the power of her paternal ancestral line and the truth about how Ghizon came to be, war comes to East Row.

The second book, Ashes of Gold, opens with Rue and her new ally Jhamal imprisoned by the Chancellor. One daring escape later and Rue is back with her father’s people as Ghizon cracks under the stress of a civil war. To save her father’s people and restore their magic, Rue must topple the Chancellor. But first there are more lies to be told, more secrets to be revealed, and more lives to be lost. Julius, a tough kid from East Row, joins Rue on the frontlines, but it all comes down to her. Only Rue can save the day.

My least favorite criticism of young adult fiction is the reliance on tropes. For one, every story, even the “classics,” contain tropes. For two, not everyone has had a chance to play with tropes. Personally, I love tropes. The trope-ier the better, as far as I’m concerned. I especially love when marginalized authors dig into the trope toy box. It doesn’t matter to me that tropes signal to the reader what’s coming; it’s about the dance as a whole, not just the steps. 

J. Elle relies on several tropes for her Wings of Ebony series, the two biggest ones being the love triangle and the Chosen One. Love triangles are tricky because they are so often two boys, the good guy and the bad boy, crushing on the same girl. The love triangle here is pretty typical. Nevertheless, Elle hits all the beats and hits them well: friends-but-maybe-more, friends-to-lovers-to-enemies, the Devastating Betrayal. With the Chosen One, Elle goes all in. Rue starts off as your stock Chosen One. She is raised in disadvantaged circumstances and loses a parent. She discovers she has inherited a great power and is subsequently forced to choose between the world she grew up in and the world her ancestors were from. She is destined to confront a corrupt leader and have a little side romance for good measure. But there is more to Rue–and her tropes–than meets the eye.

The love triangle and the Chosen One tropes often turn up in the same plot. Not only does it keep the drama going, but writers will often use the two love interests as metaphors for the main storyline and as opportunities for growth for our hero. Elle does just that. Both tropes feed into one another organically and make the whole stronger than the sum of its parts.

In particular, we see how the Chosen One trope shifts depending on who is playing the part. When we think of a trope, we often define it by how white characters have played it. With Rue, Elle shows us how a trope can take on new meaning when, say, the Chosen One is a Black girl from a historically disenfranchised and majority Black neighborhood who is pitted against a white colonizer. Now we’re not just talking about corruption and power-grabbing but the real world’s centuries of anti-Black racism, systems of racial oppression, and Black resistance. 

We’ve had a spat of great young adult fantasy series set in or inspired by Africa recently, and I’m so here for it. Like the others, Ashes of Gold does a solid job of blending a high-stakes plot, compelling characters, and creative worldbulding with real-world social justice issues. This is the kind of book, the kind of series, where Black girls will revel in seeing themselves as main characters instead of sassy sidekicks. Rue is a girl worth admiring. She understands the difference between leading and ruling, and knows that a community is only as strong as its weakest individuals. For all her faults and failures, she never stops trying.

Wings of Ebony and Ashes of Gold make for an action-packed duology. From a hardscrabble Texas neighborhood to a magical fantasy land off the coast of Africa, J. Elle takes readers on a wild adventure full of romance and danger. You can’t help but root for Rue. 

Ashes of Gold is published by Denene Millner Books.
Read an excerpt here.

Alex Brown is an Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).

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