3/5 stars — a unique premise hobbled by an overcomplicated plot
To me, it feels like the author shoehorned a cool concept—phoenix horse racing—into an unnecessarily complicated world, then frontloaded the novel with worldbuilding information. I stuck the first quarter of the book out because I hoped that the actual races would be worth it. And they were…for the small section of the book that was actually about the race. I’m all for giving the selling-point mechanic of the novel socio-political context—The Hunger Games is an example of a similar book that did this well—but this novel tried to juggle too many balls and dropped a few of them.
Let’s talk about pacing. As I said, I found it difficult to immerse myself in the story at first, which was partially an issue of structure: the point of view skips between three characters, two of whom are initially unsympathetic and not (in my opinion) nearly as compelling as the third one. So—ironically—a book about racing starts off at a tediously slow pace. The middle act is better-paced, but problems arise again in the final act, where the political side(?) plot and the main plot jostle for precedence and way too many things are happening at once.
The characters were also an issue for me. The three POV voices are Imelda, part of a lower ethnic class called Dividians, who’s entering the races essentially as the government-sponsored token minority; Adrian, the pawn of a revolutionary father who intends to use his performance in the race to incite a new rebellion; and Pippa, the daughter of two past victors, a member of the Ashlord upper class, and the favorite to win. While the three characters had distinct voices and each had a captivating objective, Adrian and Pippa’s sections each had jarring idiosyncrasies that made them hard to read. Adrian, for some reason, refers to his father as “Daddy,” and he does it A LOT. It’s weird enough, tonally, to be hard to overlook. Pippa’s parts are told in second person, and I had trouble with those because second person (“you went” rather than “Pippa went,” etc.) has much less emotional distance than third person, and Pippa was my least favorite narrator, particularly early in the book. To summarize, the author tries some experimental stuff with the points of view and it didn’t resonate with me.
The last major part of the book that bothered me was the Dividians’—their backstory in particular. I never like when media tries to flip the script and make the oppressor (in this case, the Ashlords) all have dark eyes and skin, while the oppressed group has lighter coloring. And then, oddly, the setting’s history positions it so the Ashlords are semi-justified in oppressing the Dividians since the Dividians first arrived in the Ashlords’ homeland as an invading force. I don’t have the language to unpack it, but something about this felt off to me.
However, I still give this book three of five stars for its major redeeming feature: the phoenix horse race. If that mechanic—using special alchemical materials to resurrect horses with powers based on those components—had been the focus of the story, I would have loved it. The race itself was where the pace flowed most smoothly and the character contrasts worked best. It was a fantastic concept buried in subplots and swamped by at least one more POV character than the narrative could sustain at that length.
I’d recommend this novel with reservations to readers who enjoy unique dystopian worlds. The story was likened to Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races, but the only hint of similarity is that they both feature horse races with supernatural horses. If you go in hoping for something The Scorpio Races, you’ll be disappointed, but Ashlords is fine if you lower the bar a little. The ending sets up a sequel, but I’m not interested in continuing the series.
content warnings: violence, gore, fantasy racism
** I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. **