An Inheritance of Ashes, Leah Bobet (Clarion 978-0544281110, $17.99, 400pp, hc) October 2015.
In Leah Bobet’s new fantasy, An Inheritance of Ashes, there is an early scene that could have come from any history of the U.S. Civil War. The teen protagonist, Hallie, is working the fields of the farm she and her older sister are struggling to hold onto, in a setting reminiscent of late 1865 America:
The wind stirred my hair, stirred the edges of that ragged silhouette in the broken barley fields. Please, I thought, be Thom. Not some man two inches too tall who walked all wrong, who didn’t wave to me –
I let myself believe it for thirty delicious seconds before I let the truth in: It wasn’t Thom. Just another veteran coming up the road, with a family who was waiting and wouldn’t have to wait much longer. Just another stranger.
Sadly, the man on the road walking her way isn’t Hallie’s brother-in-law Thom, husband to the very pregnant Marthe, who left months before to join the war against the Wicked God Southward, his desperate followers, and the awful unworldly creatures he commanded, the ‘‘Twisted Things’’. It is instead a veteran called Heron who is looking for a place to hunker down for the winter. Heron offers to work for room and board even though he knows he, and the secret he’s keeping, should move on. Heron stays, and soon everything in Hallie’s world is blown apart.
On one level, An Inheritance of Ashes is about the obvious: the aftermath of war. Everyone in the local community has been touched by the conflict, from the wounded who have returned maimed and suffering from PTSD to those who are waiting for someone like Thom, who is still missing. Bobet weaves all of the fear and anger that seeps out of a war throughout her plot, eventually having Hallie erupt with frustration at stoic Herron:
‘‘You and Cal and James and Tyler, you all act like you can protect us from ever knowing there was a war, or Twisted Things.’’ I gestured wide, at the burn marks in the brush he couldn’t see. ‘‘I’m trying to help you. Don’t insult me by pretending I shouldn’t know what that might cost.’’
Hallie’s life is further complicated by all that lies unsaid between her and Marthe; between the fears that a long family tradition that sees the farm only belong to the eldest will mean that Hallie has to leave soon, and within the fallout from their own violent childhood. The sisters have survived since Thom’s departure by hunkering down and trusting practically no one, except their nearest neighbors. But the terrible silence that has grown around them has gotten darker and more poisonous – everything that is unsaid is making it impossible for them to understand each other. Their little family started falling apart when Thom left and now, months later, it is very nearly too far gone to save.
This quiet drama is nothing however compared to the cascade of events that occurs after Heron arrives. A Twisted Thing, one of the dark and deadly creatures from the vanquished Wicked God Southward appears at Hallie’s window. And then another and another is found on the farm. The neighbors are called and no one can figure out what is happening. Everyone knows that Southward was killed by the soldier John Balsam with his dagger; everyone knows the war is over. But the Twisted Things have come to the farm, which means… something. And then there is the fact that the victorious army is on the march, looking for John Balsam, who vanished after the battle. The army wants its hero and if it finds the Twisted Things then it will set fire to their farm, destroying everything to save the earth. The army will not listen to reason. So Hallie and Marthe must find a solution, must reach out for help and save the farm, must keep the army at bay and also confront a ghostly mystery that might mean Thom is back, or something far darker.
Fans of Bobet’s short stories will not be surprised to find a tour-de-force in this novel. The writing is strong, the world-building subtle but intense, and the diverse characters are enormously appealing. An Inheritance of Ashes is a gorgeous book about the ignominy and foolishness of war, the enduring love of family, and the brilliance of true friendship as well as all the many many – many – reasons why we should never turn our backs on science. Absolutely unforgettable and not to be missed.