The Ashen Levels by CF Welburn is a gamelit progressive fantasy novel which is both massive in scope and definitely on my best books list for this year. I think this book probably is one of the more impressive in terms of weaving details together and giving me an ending that was rather surprising.
This book follows the adventures of one Balagir, a man who wakes up at a fire where a mysterious piper collected smoke from other people like himself. Only, Balagir is not-quite human. Perhaps he never has been. He has no memory, no idea of a past, no idea of his purpose in life, no idea of who this piper is and no idea what this smoke is. Balagir is an ashen.
This is where the gamelit aspect of the story comes into play. The ashen, like the players, collect smoke as rewards for fulfilling oaths and completing tasks or challenges. They earn smoke and pay the piper in exchange for power. The most power, the stronger the ashen can be, and the more enchanted items an ashen can use. Unfortunately, not all the oaths are things that Balagir really wants to do. Actually, most of them are things that Balagir doesn’t want to do.
Balagir sets off on an adventure in order to search for the truth. He wants to learn just what the ashen are, where the piper comes from and what in the world is going on. Of course, this means facing a number of unfortunate tasks, a slew of unknown lands —these are the times when people like me, that is the directionally challenged people, need a map. CF Welburn just laughed in amusement at my request—mysterious people, war, and even some monsters. Frankly, I liked the monsters.
This book is one of the most fascinating adventure stories I have read in a good long while. The situations are numerous and detailed to the point of being probably woven together by a tapestry-maker. All of the interactions that Balagir has with people are somehow significant. Some of these interactions show up pages later and turn the story on its head. Knowing which of these interactions are the most important is quite difficult, though, so do pay attention. The cast of characters travels through perilous situations, doing their best to survive all the while searching for answers. Or, well, Balagir is searching for answers. We’re not quite sure about the others.
As far as the characters go, this cast is quite large. If you asked me to name all of the characters, I could not. However, having the large number of characters is actually a nice thing. Balagir’s interactions feel a little more natural than the fantasy novels that have one band of characters throughout. The Ashen Levels involves people specific to certain places, as well as people who move all over. There are other ashen, there are monsters, there are humans. And somehow, all of it manages to stay perfectly straight within the story, to the point where you don’t get confused at all. Well, unless you try to remember everyone’s names.
Now, I’m going to be a bit of a word nerd for a moment. The language in this book is very impressive. Many “period” fantasy novels (and novels in other genres) try to maintain a consistent language that would be associated with a certain period. Many authors fail. CF Welburn did not fail. He manages to write in a consistently formal register, even when people are dying or fighting, that is reminiscent of the late seventeenth century, eighteenth century, and early nineteenth century. That is not to say that the language is necessarily convoluted and talks around issues, as one does often find with novels written during those times, but the register is formal and precise. And as a linguist, I am quite impressed by it.
As for the ending, I’m sure by now you are familiar with my fondness for being surprised by the endings. This one definitely did that. I would not say it is a cliffhanger (unless you are reading this book as individual volumes, in which case, all but the end of the series are cliffhangers of the cruellest sort) but more of a… MY GOODNESS WHAT JUST HAPPENED sort of reaction. I can tell you very little, excepting that a character was not what they seemed and caused trouble and the answers were very well hidden. Basically, chaos as expected in unexpected ways. Yes, that is vague. I make no apologies. It was a very good ending.
Do be aware that this book is not something to sneeze at. It took me five days to read it. (For those of you who don’t know, I read very quickly. So when I say it took five days to read, know that this is a long book.) Now, I could have broken it into the five volumes, but I read it all the way through. It was addicting, fascinating, pulled me through and had me asking so many questions I desperately needed answers to. This book is hugely fascinating and I would highly recommend it.
In a nutshell, The Ashen Levels is a well-woven story with a huge amount of details that may or may not be important, required several uninterrupted hours to read, a goodly amount of tea for processing power and then had me pacing afterwards because I was just flabbergasted. How many books can you say that about?