Ashael Rising by Shona Kinsella (The Vessel of KalaDene, Book One), Unbound 2016, currently accepting pledges at Unbound’s website, https://unbound.com/books/ashael-rising
Reviewed by Alex S. Bradshaw
Ashael Rising is a fantasy story that has at its core many elements that are staples of a traditional fantasy story. It has evil invaders from another world, it has a chosen one, and it has folk that dwell in the woods. For all this Ashael Rising feels different and it uses these elements as rough guidelines to build something new not as rigid directions through old, well-trodden paths. Shona Kinsella has written a book that has comfortable roots in traditional fantasy but created a story that feels fresh and exciting.
For example, an immediately intriguing element to this book is that the main character is a medicine woman. Not a usual choice for a fantasy protagonist. The titular Ashael is apprenticed to an experienced healer and lives in the woods with her community helping them as best she can.
Shona Kinsella’s world also makes a departure from the usual pseudo-medieval European setting that we see so often and we spend much of the time in the Cams: utopian communes who are at one with the environment around them. This contrasts sharply with the invaders to the world, the Zanthar, who live in an enormous stone fortress and are vicious, sadistic characters that must feed on the life-force of others to survive. I thought this was a great way that set up the antagonist forces in juxtaposition to those of the protagonist.
Despite the fact that the setting is much departed from the usual fantasy fare there was no extraneous exposition. The author steers well clear of the deadly info-dump trap and keeps the dialogue and writing on course throughout whilst not letting the reader get lost in strange terminology. Although I did feel that at certain points more description a scene’s setting would not have gone amiss. I was quite curious as to what the stone halls of the Zanthar looked like but was glad that I wasn’t drowned in description.
The plot began slowly and I felt that the pace could have been faster in the beginning, but once all of the characters were given a sense of agency and were able to be proactive the story was much faster without feeling rushed and I found myself speeding through the pages. This was definitely helped by the writing was very strong throughout; Kinsella provides clear scenes and imagery and I never found myself getting lost amongst the letters.
There is a full range of characters, mostly centered on Ashael’s Cam, but I think that the author has created personalities and the contrast of the woodland folks’ philosophy and that of the invaders lend themselves very well to the conflict. It was nice to see a main character who did not fit into the typical role of the weapon-wielding super-powered protagonist and I thought that it gave Ashael an interesting and different perspective to that which you would normally find in a ‘chosen one’ story. Beyond that the other characters come from a society which differs very much from our own and I was glad to be able to explore that as part of the story.
I hope that in the next book the characters of the invading Zanthar are explored more fully. Though the author has created credible villains with proper motives and reasons for acting despicably there is a risk that it may become gratuitous in the next book. Having said that I think that the groundwork for this has already been laid as more Zanthar characters have been introduced but not properly explored at the end of the book.
I believe that the first books in a series should be able to be enjoyed alone with a sense of resolution that leaves doors open for the rest of the series. I think that Kinsella does this well: there is a clear conflict that is restricted to this single book with enough foreshadowing for me to wonder where the plot is going and with plenty of mileage in the overarching plot of the series and a lot more of the universe to explore. Further to this, as we read further in the book we know that there is much more to the world Ashael inhabits than that which we have already read. There are numerous races and I look forward to finding out more about them.
The fact that the Zanthar’s are aliens to the world the story is set in was something I really liked. I very much hope that we can find out more about all of the different worlds and see whether they can work together with Ashael’s people to help defeat the Zanthars.
Although this book could stand to be a bit faster paced at the beginning it is a strong debut that builds on traditional fantasy that is fresh, exciting, and interesting. The book as a whole has nice thematic contrasts, interesting characters, and we only seem to have touched the surface of the world that Kinsella has created. I would recommend it if you are looking for a new voice in fantasy with a few new twists on the elements we already know and love. I am sure that the next book in the series will be an exciting development of the story and I look forward to it.
Ashael Rising is still accepting funding for publication at Unbound’s website and you can find a pledge level that suits you here: https://unbound.com/books/ashael-rising