There are very few things in this world as satisfying as reading a book – A REAL ACTUAL PUBLISHED BOOK – by one of my writer friends. I am unbelievably proud of our very own, one and only, R.K. Ashwick for reaching this amazing milestone! I’ve been following its development through the taglist on tumblr for… I don’t know, maybe over a year now? It’s been truly gratifying to watch the characters and story grow (hah), and I am absolutely overjoyed that come August, I’ll be able to hold it in my hands. The following review is my honest opinion, which I promised to share after receiving an advanced reader copy of the book. I’m going to keep this mostly spoiler free because it hasn’t come out yet, though in the future I may write a spoilers-filled review as well, so I can freely dig into all the interesting bits of this book. So without further ado…
Overall Impression: 5/5, Next Book Now Please?
This fantasy novel about family, lutes, spirits, cave boats, academia politics, flowers, worms, breakfast pastry, the apocalypse, and flowers is a charming balance of whimsy, humor, heartbreak, and horror that I finished in one day. At work. While running lab tests. In ebook format. I don’t know what a higher recommendation you could want. My only complaint is that I can’t buy the sequel immediately because I have so many unanswered questions (in a good, set up for the next book, not an actively confusing kind of way)
Struggling bard Emry Karic has only one path home: impress the Auric Guild, join the ranks of the elite musicians therein, and return to his family with his honor in hand.
Difficult to do on a good day. Impossible to do with a possessed lute.
Just before the biggest performance of Emry’s life, a talkative forest spirit named Aspen traps themself in his lute. Emry swears the spirit to silence on stage, in exchange for a favor: he will help Aspen investigate the magical earthquake that forced them into the instrument.
But Emry is a bard, not a scholar, and their research leads them straight to the person who resents him the most: Cal Breslin, his academia-entrenched ex-girlfriend. As they delve into the forgotten mythology of spirits and gods, they uncover an ancient folktale. The tale recounts an earth-shattering quake, one whose magical energy consumed all living things as it swept across the country. To their horror, the story’s details echo what Emry and Aspen experienced the night before.
And as the apocalypse looms, the Auric Guild taps Emry for a callback, throwing his family’s ultimatum into conflict with their very survival.
Emry is deeply relatable and I want to give him a hug and a cup of soup and tell him it’s all gonna be ok so badly. His relationships with his family, peers, and authorities, his anxiety, the hopeful determination he brings to every challenge – RK creates such sympathetic, well-meaning, walking disaster that you can’t help but root for throughout the story. He’s trying his best to live up to so many expectations (some self-inflicted), and his sacrifices make your heart ache. As a protagonist, he does a fantastic job of carrying the POV of the series, and I can’t wait to hear about his adventures in the next book.
Cal, my genius queen, is an inspiration to exhausted uni students everywhere. I think rereading this book will keep me going next semester. If Calliope Breslin can accomplish such brilliant studies during a world-shaking cataclysm, then so can I. Her relationship with Emry is nuanced, deep, and extremely sweet. Their spats come from a place where both are wrong and both are right, and watching them come to an understanding of each other was incredibly satisfying. She serves as an expositor of information while keeping the delivery interesting, and I loved going along on the journey of discovery alongside her.
Perhaps my only complaint is that she’s SO clever, she beat me to the conclusion at the end of the spider-web of clues, which lessened the impact of the mystery slightly. She’s privy to in-world information we don’t have as readers, but to be fair, neither does Emry. RK delivers the impact through drama, countdowns, and other external factors, which means the mystery does not need to carry the tension in the book, and it still works really well.
Aspen is a delight and joy and too good and pure for this sinful world, my light, my life, my darling. They can have all the best offerings from my garden if they want. As an outsider to the human world of the story, they serve as a helpful audience surrogate to ask questions and get answers, as a native to the spirit world, he serves as a natural fountain of exposition, and as the driving force of the plot, they’re a simple, yet compelling character. They’re protective, curious, and want a home, just like Emry. They’re fascinating as foils to each other and the climax shows the culmination of their respective arcs in such a satisfying way.
The side characters are also delightful and well-rounded in their own respects. I’d love to have tea with the Alta in her grove, and reading the interactions between Emry and his family were both hilarious and heartwarming. I want a solo novella chronicling how they dealt with his absence for three years, and how their dynamics changed in response, if only for Georgie’s snark.
This world feels so authentic, and lived-in, that despite the life-threatening events of the plot, I would move there in a heartbeat. The development of our understanding through the plot feels organic as the characters learn more about the spirits and almost-forgotten religion of their regions. The nature (which features heavily thanks to Aspen’s role as a forest spirit), is a charming blend of homey, with familiar trees and comfortable descriptions of meals, buildings, and clothing, and otherworldly, with the river routes through the caves, glow worms, rhythm blooms, and fanes.
I wish we could see more of the mythology. As a religion nerd, I want to know whether or not there are people that worship the other gods, instead of Hara and the Sada festival, or even entirely different faiths. How did the southern people become agnostic/atheistic? How do the Altas recruit and preserve the myths when there aren’t many to listen? When did the Academy and Council come to be? The book gives us just enough to facilitate the story, without being confused, but it also feels like there’s so much more to explore. Good thing this is a series!
Besides that, all the other plot-relevant foreshadowing paid off spectacularly in the end. Unfortunately, I can’t talk about all the epic parallel moments because of spoilers, but RK pulls them off with a deft mastery of storytelling craft that I envy.
yes! excellent book! 5/5 stars! go preorder it right now. I said so. You can check out R.K. Ashwick’s other work on her tumblr (information in the pinned post), her website, and on Goodreads. You can also find R.K. on Facebook and TikTok! Check back next week to read my interview with her, talking about her publishing journey!
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