3 / 5 stars
Read in January 2021
Book #1 in the Ashlords duology
I loved horse books growing up—Black Beauty, Misty of Chincoteague, Pony Pals…if it had horses, I probably read it— so to this day anything that combines horses and fantasy is right up my alley. With its dystopian Wild West vibes and phoenix horse races, Ashlords was no exception.
The worldbuilding is by far the best part of this book. I absolutely loved the idea of phoenix horses that must be reborn each day, meaning their riders must strategize to ensure they make it through the race. Not only this, but the characteristics of their horses are determined using alchemy, so riders must also have the scientific knowledge to combine elements and create the fastest and strongest mounts. It made the race about more that just strength and riding ability, which was super unique and made the different elements that affected the horses so intriguing. You could tell Scott Reintgen had a lot of fun coming up with these combinations.
Reintgen is an engaging storyteller and skilled writer whom readers of any age could enjoy. He paints each chapter vividly, making it was easy to keep turning the pages. Although the book dragged a bit towards the end of the first half, since it takes until about the 50% mark for the race to start, I otherwise felt very invested in the plot and could not wait to see who would win the race. The race itself delivered action-packed, high stakes scenes, and once it began I didn’t stop reading until I finished the book.
As for what I didn’t like; I’m still not sure why Reintgen chose to write two of the POVs in first person, but the third POV in second person. Unless there’s an unexpected twist to be revealed in book #2 (who knows, we’ll see…), it came off as an attempt to be unique in a world where so many YA Fantasy books are told in first person POV. You get used to the second person POV as the book goes on, so luckily it wasn’t too distracting, but it still had me questioning this choice.
In addition, while I liked the three MCs and found them each interesting in different ways, I wouldn’t say I felt too attached to any of them. Because of their backstories and personalities, combined with the cowboy dystopian setting, their stoicism made them unreadable at times. Perhaps this was Reintgen’s intention, as due to circumstances each character presented themself to in a way that was expected of them, but as the reader it felt like I barely scratched the surface of who they truly were.
Lastly, I didn’t love the gods/religion of the Ashlords. I found it all confusing and thought it didn’t quite fit into the world. However, this might come down to personal preference, as I often think gods/religion feel forced in YA Fantasy. It seems like authors feel the need check off a “religion” box on their worldbuilding sheet, but instead of complementing the story their additions ultimately oversaturate what would otherwise be very successful worldbuilding. This was the case for Ashlords.
Overall, this was a likeable read, and I’m interested to see what happens next. Perhaps in book #2 we’ll get to know the characters better, or find out just why Pippa’s perspective is told in second person POV. Either way, I’m hoping for more action, even higher stakes, and, most importantly, more phoenix horses.