Review | We Men of Ash and Shadow – H.L. Tinsley

About the Book

Amidst the gas lamp shadows former soldier-turned-mercenary John Vanguard hunts criminals at the behest of his corrupt employer, Captain Felix Sanquain. Shamed by his deserter past and seeking to make amends for his many misdeeds, a chance encounter with Tarryn Leersac – a skilled young would-be-assassin fallen from the graces of high society – leads Vanguard to become an unlikely mentor.

Charged with hunting down the killer of two guards left washed up on the banks of the canal, the further Vanguard delves into the underbelly of the city the more he finds himself entangled in a web of secrets and lies. A prominent aristocrat is missing. Crime lords, con men and harlots run amok and the city teeters on the brink of another revolution.

With his already precarious reputation hanging by a thread, Vanguard must piece together how and why the last war came to pass, find a way to earn redemption for his mistakes and come to terms with the past in a city where few survive, and even fewer can be trusted.

296 pages (kindle)
Published on October 1, 2020
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Every once in a while I come across a book that makes me so excited, I want to pick it up and throw it at every person who reads speculative fiction, “HERE, READ THIS.” The book doesn’t have to be perfect to achieve this level of excitement from me. What it needs to do, is show such finesse, such skill, I can instantly see the author is going to be a rock star, and I want to get in on the ground floor before things really take off. I get excited when I see new talent, fresh blood, and I want everyone else to see what I see. 

So, we have H.L. Tinsley, and her first book, We Men of Ash and Shadow. Now, let me be clear, I read and edit a lot of books. A lot. A ton. A boatload of books. Books are my full-time job. I typically spend about twelve hours a day steeped in the written word. I have a knack for looking at a book, and being able to tell within the first few paragraphs if I have something remarkable on my hands. Reader, within the first paragraph of this book, I knew H.L. Tinsley is not only an author to watch, but she’s going places. This is someone I’m excited about and I want all of you to be excited about her too. 

We Men of Ash and Shadow is brilliantly written. Tinsley has a knack for a good turn of phrase. She knows just how say things in a way that makes the greatest impact on her reader. A good book, in my estimation, is more than one thing. Plot, characters, world building, and magic are all important, but the prose tends to be what makes all of that shine. I will admit, my favorite books are the ones I can admire as much for the plot and characters, as for how they are written. A book that can make me sit back and say, “that sentence is genius” is one I know I will enjoy. 

The book takes place in the city of D’Orsee, a place gripped by the iron fist of tyranny. Whispers arise about an uprising. People are getting tired of the way things are. There’s talk of things happening to change all that, which is dangerous. This is a dark place, and it’s full of unrest and simmering emotions. One gets the feeling that this city is tinder, and all it needs is a match to ignite. In fact, this disquiet is so powerful and pervasive, it almost becomes a living creature, a character in its own right. It’s a place where survival depends more on a person’s ingenuity and determination than anything else. The morally gray realm I love so much is Tinsley’s playground in We Men of Ash and Shadow.

Enter John Vanguard.

John Vanguard is a former soldier (I really love his name, by the way) who now works as a mercenary who is hired to do dark deeds for the city’s warlord. His previous career in the military ended with a bit of a disaster, leaving Vanguard a bit scarred emotionally, however, he has certain skills and his skills are put to good use. 

Part of Vanguard’s appeal was his depth. He isn’t just surface-level. He has a history and that history has left its marks and impacts how he acts and feels, and what he does. How he lives his life, which hasn’t been easy, and has had too few happy or pleasant moments, or so it seemed to me. His guilt, misplaced or not, is a driving force behind who he is, and why he does what he does. 

In truth, the same can be said for all of Tinsley’s characters. Their history is what makes them truly shine.

Tarryn is the other main character, and I will admit, I seriously loved him, partly because it took me some time to understand how delightfully warped this guy really is, with a past that is just as pivotal and important in his own development as Vanguard’s, just in different ways. 

The secondary characters really shine here, and the way Tinsley utilizes them as a tool to develop her point of view characters and plot really thrilled me. It isn’t very often that I see secondary characters developed this well, or used so craftily. There was a point and purpose to each one, and they were always on screen for that reason, rather than to just fill space. Through these secondary interactions, we learn a lot more about Vanguard and Tarryn, as well as the city and the peoples who live in it. 

We Men of Ash and Shadow works on a more subtle playing field than what you might expect from a book that features criminals and their ilk. Part noir, part fantasy, and very dark, this book doesn’t really have epic battles and lots of blood (though blood and violence is present and does happen). Perhaps I expected it to be more prevalent, and that might be why I was so pleased when I discovered Tinsley decided to go another way. Life is balanced on the edge of a knife. Threats lurk around every corner. One misstep, and it all comes crumbling down. That atmosphere, that living, breathing creature I mentioned earlier, pays off in this respect. Every action and each consequence feels like a bit of a battle, no less pitched for how personal, intimate, and internal it often ends up being. While there is violence, and there is tragedy, I seemed to focus more on the quieter moments of struggle, and the emotional impact it often had. Intrigue really uh… intrigues me. 

Perhaps if I had one complaint, it’s this: I wish the book was longer. I wish the characters were given a bit more time to show me their history and their stories. I wanted to see just how D’Orsee came to be, and how this turbulent place has lasted this long. History, I suppose. I wanted more history. In a book this gripping, and this brilliantly executed, I discovered I wanted to spend more time with these characters on the page, and more time with this world. I just, quite honestly, wanted more.

That’s a hell of a complaint, right?

So, where does that leave us? 

We Men of Ash and Shadow is an absolutely wonderful dark fantasy debut. Everything about this book was pitch-perfect. My only complaint is that I want more, more, more. Mark my words, H.L. Tinsley is an author to watch. 

4.5/5 stars