We Men of Ash & Shadow




Recently, I entered a giveaway for H. L. Tinsley's We Men of Ash & Shadow on audio and very fortuitously won a copy (I already have the ebook, but unfortunately hadn't had the chance to read it yet. As it is read by one of my favourite narrators in the business, I was dead chuffed. 

This book has been garnering much attention of late and you can catch various podcasts & youtube appearences of both Holly Tinsley & RJ Bayley on a number of things. Holly Tinsley has recently appeared on Stephen Aryan's Late Night Talks on youtube and RJ  Bayley has been featured recently on Fantasy Files latest episode.

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.

A Grimdark novel with elements of adventure and gaslight fantasy, ‘We Men of Ash and Shadow’ explores themes of redemption, loyalty, and betrayal against the backdrop of a world where survival often means compromising your values.

‘We Men of Ash and Shadow’ is an adult fantasy novel and as such, contains adult themes and language.

We Men of Ash and Shadow is a grimdark Gaslamp novel by H.L. Tinsley set in the shadowy underworld of D’orsee. 

John Vanguard, the main character, is a grizzled veteran who hires his services out to the powers that be to remove anyone that they see as being ‘undesirable’, which mainly involves the scum of society. However, John Vanguard is not like your average assassin, he has the power to be undetectable, and this gives him an advantage in his chosen profession. 
In addition to Vanguard, the other main protagonist is Tarryn, an emotionless psychopath who lives on the edge of ‘society’ with his ailing mother. Once a prosperous family who owned a shipping conglomerate, he now lives on the cusp of poverty in a decaying house with his mother, who is slowly losing her wits and does not even recognise her own son anymore.
We men of Ash and Shadow is an interesting book. It’s a gritty noirish tale of two broken people who live in a world of broken people. John Vanguard is a man that is steeped in guilt and is effectively a husk of a man who has few pleasures. He lives in a brothel (mainly sleeping in the bath tub as he has spent a number of years confined in ‘The Hole’ for crimes against the state). When we meet Tarryn we learn of his past, but we also learn throughout the book that he is also on the edge of psychopathy, and is similarly an emotionless husk of a man who only comes alive when he is killing
We Men of Ash and Shadow is a deliciously dark introduction into John Vanguard’s world and one of the things that jumped out at me immediately is the character of John Vanguard. It makes a nice change to encounter a character that is middle aged in years and not just on the verge of adulthood. Yes, whilst he is a cold-hearted killer, for some reason it is easy to connect with him as a character. He does have an ethical code in which he operates and there is a sense of honour to him. Throughout the book, it is clear that whilst he lives in an environment that is morally grey, he will look after those that he cares about, such as the girls who live in the brothel, or the madame who governs it. He will not see injustice done and tends to only kill those that deserve it.
Tarrryn on the other hand is also a good secondary character, and we see his development through the story as at first, he is merely a lost soul, but the writer shows us how he got to where he is now through recollection and develops him and his ever-tenuous psyche.
The world that Holly Tinsley has built is bleak, hard and unforgiving. There is grime and filth aplenty and the citizens of D’Orsee eke out an existence in this grim environment. It seems to be quite a dystopian world that the citizens of D’Orsee live in, resembling the industrialised environment of Victorian England, and you get hints of the changes from the vestiges of a pastoral world to the grime and degradation of an industrialised world, and Holly Tinsley captures this very well. 
The book itself is filled with a multitude of characters that you can’t help but like. There’s Ruth (who is renamed Carmen to make her more exotic to the customers of the brothel) who has an interesting arc in the book, moving from wide eyed innocent to revolutionary. I particularly enjoyed her interactions with Vanguard, and again this one of the things that Holly Tinsley does well. Whilst the world that the characters inhabit is harsh, cold and bitter, there is the juxtaposition of warm and intimate friendships and relationships in this hostile climate. Vanguard’s relationship with the brothel Madam, Henrietta for instance, is such a good one that highlights this propensity for hope throughout the book. Similarly, Tarryn’s adherence to his duty to looking after his mother. He endures a multitude of punishments from her when she is in a frenzied state of unreality. However, despite his ability for violence against others, he takes the beatings that she gives him and calmly deals with them, recognising that they are not her fault. 
I have to say that I enjoyed Holly Tinsley’s book, that is filled with characters that have an emotional complexity which helps brings the characters alive and kept me immersed in the narrative.
The plot of the book itself keeps you gripped and takes you to places that you don’t particularly expect and leads you expectantly into the next book. The plot initially has noirish murder plot to it as Vanguard is tasked to investigate the deaths of a number of the ‘Red Guard’, the militia of the town of D’orsee and also the disappearance of a prominent figure in society. However, as the plot develops, we soon see that there is more going on that meets the eye. 
In terms of magic, it is fairly muted, except for the strange powers of Vanguard and Tarryn’s abilities to meld into the shadows. However, I liked this aspect and the fact that there are not inexplicable magical events peppered throughout the book as I felt that it added to the overall substance of the book, that gritty realism of the story, shall we say.
Added to that there is the familiar comfort of RJ Bayley’s excellent narration of the story, which increased my enjoyment of the book. This in itself was a draw to me. 
Since I listen to a plethora of audiobooks, I will look for narrators who I am familiar with. I first became aware of R. J. Bayley in another favourite audiobook of mine ‘Ritual of Flesh’, so when I noticed that he was the narrator of ‘We Men of Ash and Shadow’ I was immediately interested in this book as I knew it would be excellent.
We Men of Ash and Shadow is an excellent debut by Holly Tinsley and is a must for any grimdark fan, and the dimly lit world of light and shadow is sure to please those that delight in the darker aspects of fantasy.
If you liked the sound of the book and want to check it out on GoodreadsAudible, or Amazon, just click the links.
You can catch R. J. Bayley on Spotify where he does a show called Metal Empire Interviews with various metal bands, and also on Bayley's Bookshelf where he has just put out a reading of War of the Worlds on SpotifyApple Podbean



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