Title: A Study of Ash and Smoke
Author: Yolandie Horak
Date published: 2019
Star Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
In the fictional land of Ehrdia lies the Seven Kingdoms. One of these kingdoms is called Aelland where a powerful force-field stretches over the land preventing those inside it from leaving, and those on the outside from entering. This magical force is referred to as the Mantle, and at the center of it all is a giant Monolith. Under the Mantle in the city of Roicester we meet Carabelle ‘Cara’ Lenoir who is actually the queen of one of the neighbouring kingdoms, Mordoux. In Aelland however she is forced to hide her hair under a hood and pretend to be Carl Fletcher, the physician Duke Magnus Cutter’s ‘male’ apprentice with a knack for healing and an interest in medicine. No one other than Magnus knows that Cara/Carl is being kept hidden from her father Laroche, the royal Assassin. In the meantime Cara’s sister Seraphine is keeping the throne warm in Mordoux with her husband Victor, whilst their brother Frank is missing and presumed dead.
Carl Fletcher the healer is passionate about his work as an apprentice, even though he is often prevented from assisting certain members of the nobility because of his assumed lower status. Over time Cara has begun to love Magnus like a father, and is heartbroken when she discovers his decision to retire and hand the business over to his son Nate. Nate will however be immediately drawn into the conspiracy and intrigue of keeping Cara hidden and safe. Cara and Nate’s relationship soon develops into something a lot more than simply that of physician and apprentice as their fondness for each other grows.
Bordering Roicester are the ‘Slums’ where the quality of living has deteriorated. When a corpse is found at the foot of the Mantle in the midst of the slums, panic ensues and physicians from all over Aelland are sent to manage the sick, and attempt to find a cure for a mysterious affliction simply referred to as ‘the rot’ which appears to be spreading fast. It is here that we meet Lance, the owner of a brothel whose ‘brother’ Puck has also become infected with the disease. We are also introduced to some of Nate’s closest friends who are all invested in helping in the Slums – Ahmed, a fellow physician, Jerry, a professor, Nita, a chemist or herbalist of sorts and Marquis Du Point ‘Pointy’ who is secretly a member of Mordian Intelligence. They are all made aware of Cara/Carl’s situation and Nate is adamant that every single one of them can be trusted to keep her secret.
In the meantime Queen Seraphine is being held prisoner in her own kingdom, and Laroche is murdering people left, right and center. She fears for her sister’s life and chooses to remain on the throne if only to keep an eye on Laroche.
To add more intrigue into the mix, Frank (Sera and Cara’s brother) is alive and well and the leader of a group of rebels in a camp they have named Collinefort. They have recently made an alliance with Queen Vendla and her daughter Varda of the kingdom of Dvara. To forge the alliance Frank and Varda become betrothed to one another, even though Frank’s mistress the rather untrustworthy Malak is not going anywhere anytime soon. The Dvarans are a fascinating race with a Scandinavian influence and a penchant for keeping wild bears as allies. They have the ships, whilst the rebels have the manpower and together they plan to take down the Mantle and establish control of Aelland, consequently bringing down the present monarchy.
As tensions rise in the slums and more and more people become infected with ‘rot’, the king makes a drastic decision regarding the slums that will have everyone fighting to regain power over and freedom in the land they call home under the illusive Mantle. It becomes increasingly clear that Cara must finally take her place as the queen and save the kingdom from her own flesh and blood.
In this debut novel from South African author Yolandie Horak I finally found the fantasy series I actually WANT to continue reading. I would like to make it very clear that I have never given a book in the fantasy genre 5 stars, and this is not because there aren’t any good ones around. There are plenty of amazing series and standalone fantasy novels out there that have the readership stats to prove their worth. My reasoning is simple: I tend to give lower ratings when I am constantly forced to page back and piece together plots, remember locations and become familiar with complicated character’s names. This may sound absurd to the veteran fantasy reader; however I shudder more at the absurdity of creating such bizarre character names that they put celebrity baby names to shame. With all that out of the way I want you dear reader to understand right away that this was NOT my experience with A Study of Ash and Smoke. It is in fact the complete opposite, and my experience reading this amazing book has been utterly fantastic from the first page to the last.
Horak has all the right ingredients to create a magical series that will keep readers enchanted for a very long time – if she chooses to do so. Her writing style is as smooth as velvet and her characters are fascinating, unique and well-presented. Unlike a lot of fantasy that I have read lately her descriptions of magical lands are not so ostentatious that you wish you could mentally bookmark every page just to make sure you don’t lose your way. That being said her plot is anything but simple, and by that I mean that she has developed a masterful plot that is extremely well-constructed that bears not a single tear or hole that I can see. It’s also worth mentioning that the author grapples beautifully with notions of sexuality, gender, race and class structure with perfect grace and an obvious intelligence.
In conclusion Yolandie Horak’s novel is so impressive I honestly wish that it were possible for me to crawl into it and allow the words to flow over me as snugly as the cape Cara is forced to wear to hide her ‘strain-bearing’ hair. I was lucky enough to receive an E-copy of her book from the author herself, and I will most certainly be buying a hard copy as soon as possible. I would also not be remiss in mentioning that I am beyond excited for the sequel to this stunner of a book. Bring on the fall of the Mantle, and all hail Queen Cara!