This week I’m recommending a novel by an underrated  British author, Sarah Ash. I’d been planning to pick `Lord of Snow and Shadows’, the first volume in her `The Tears of Artamon’ trilogy but this isn’t widely available as an ebook. So instead I’ve chosen  `Tracing the Shadow’, which came out in 2008.  This is the first book in a two-part series called `The Alchymist’s Legacy’. You can get this in paperback and on most ereaders (for details see the author’s website at Not only is `The Alchymist’s Legacy’ set in the same world as `The Tears of Artamon’, it features many of the same characters. `Tracing the Shadow’ is a kind of prequel in which minor characters from `The Tears of Artamon’ become the leading players. As such, it forms a good introduction to Ash’s mythos.

The islands in Ash’s post-medieval world have much in common with various European and Asian countries. At the start of `Tracing the Shadow” Guerriers from Francia are on a crusade to capture the fortress-citadel of Ondhessar to recover the relics of St Azilia. The Francians slaughter the citadel’s guardians but the most precious relic, a crystal known as the Lodestar, is stolen by a wind-mage called Linnaius. This is an act that will change the world.  When the mage returns to the College of Thaumaturgy  in Francia, only his young apprentice Rieuk seems able to get a response from the singing crystal. Rieuk, Linnaius and his alchymist colleague Hervé de Maunoir are all blessed with magical powers because they have angel blood, but in Francia such powers are regarded as evil and have to be concealed. Rieuk accidentally frees an aethyrial spirit from the Lodestar but de Maunoir manages to bind her in his book of spells. Imri, a mage of Ondhessar who was sent to retrieve the Loadstar, seduces Rieuk into returning to Enhirre with him. Rieuk is painfully initiated into their cult and acquires a familiar in the form of a shadow hawk.

Meanwhile the Inquisition swoops on the College of Thaumaturgy. Linnaius appears to have betrayed his colleagues and then left to serve the ambitious ruler of the kingdom of Tielen.  All the college masters are burned as heretics. Klervie, the little daughter of de Maunoir, loses her home and her mother too. She has nothing left but her father’s book. Klervie is rescued from the streets by the kindly Guerrier, Ruaud de Lanvaux , who persuades a convent to take her in. She is given a new name- Celestine – and becomes a star singer in the convent choir. Celestine dares not tell anyone her true identity and an even deeper secret is the beautiful Faie who inhabits her book and acts as her protector. Ruaud later helps a second child, a boy called  Jagu who has seen a schoolfriend murdered by a shadowy mage. The Guerrier is forced to use one of the precious Angelstones to save Jagu from another attack. In the years to come, musical talent and a beloved teacher will bring Celestine and Jagu together but both of them are obsessed with finding the mage who ruined their lives. In order to save Imri’s soul, Rieuk has been forced to take a much darker path. He is looking for lost Klervie and the book that may contain Azilis, the Eternal Singer, whose task is to keep the balance between the realms of the living and the dead. Now that the Lodestar is broken terrible things are beginning to happen. The dead cannot find rest and the whole world is at risk…

I do relish a well made plot. The numerous people and places in this summary may sound confusing but they are just a taster of the complications to come as Rieuk, Celestine and Jagu get involved in political  intrigue and espionage, royal  feuds, human wars and a struggle for power between ancient daemons. Ash clearly enjoys devising many-stranded plots featuring a huge cast of characters in multiple locations. `Tracing the Shadow’ is actually one of her simpler books, since it mainly focuses on the parallel stories of the three young people: Celestine the gentle singer who longs to avenge her father, Jagu the gifted musician who becomes a warrior monk, and Rieuk the crystal mage who misuses his magic. I found it fascinating to trace the links between the three leading characters and watch their lives converge. Ash stirs all manner of things into her plot, from magical tattoos and heretical manuscripts to dragon-spirits and opera singers, but by the end of the second volume these diverse plot elements come together in an immensely satisfying way.

Ash gives the impression of being someone who writes out of love for her invented world rather than for money or fame. Northern Europe in the 18th century seems to be a particular source of inspiration but Ash draws on a wide knowledge of  history, art, music and folklore to colour in the backgrounds to her story. She is equally at home in convents and fortresses, palaces, prisons and opera houses. Her various types of magician aren’t particularly original but Ash writes interestingly about the sources of supernatural power and the moral and psychological costs of  using them. Many of her characters are deluded about, or wilfully ignorant of, the true nature of the powers they draw on. Ghosts go unrecognized, daemons from another realm are mistaken for saints and angels, and men who claim to be following divine guidance, or to be in control of captive spirits, are taken over by their darkest desires.

Anyone familiar with `The Tears of Artamon’  trilogy will see some of its characters in a new light after reading `Tracing the Shadow’ . The story should work just as well for those who are new to Ash’s world. I can think of Fantasy writers who give greater depth and complexity to their characters but few who write with such empathy. Ash handles all her viewpoint characters with affectionate understanding, so that characters who might be branded as villains by the plot are sympathetically treated. Ambitious loner Rieuk does some terrible things in the course of the story but I was still touched by his devotion to the one person he was briefly close to. In the first scene of the book, the Guerrier Ruaud is involved in the brutal slaughter of the `pagan’ defenders of Ondhessar but the reader learns to see him as a good man serving a bad cause.  Ash’s fondness for her own characters leads her to be a little too indulgent towards the power-mad Emperor of New Rossiya (if you prefer your Emperors decadent go for `Sea of Ghosts’, which I reviewed on April 17th, or my own `Prince of the Godborn’) but there are limits. Even Ash can’t work up any sympathy for her heretic-burning Chief Inquisitor.  If you find yourself liking the people you meet in `Tracing the Shadow’ , I would suggest reading `The Tears of Artamon’ trilogy next and then finishing with `Flight into Darkness’. That should keep even the keenest Fantasy reader happily occupied for a week or two. Until next time…