I had high hopes for Ember and Ash, a standalone set in the same world as Pamela Freeman's Castings Trilogy, which I remember as being fairly good. One of the things I really liked about the Castings Trilogy was its handling of race and the relationship between the native inhabitants and the conquering people. So much fantasy just doesn't get that right, and Pamela Freeman really did get it right in Castings.
I'm sorry to say it, but I was disappointed with Ember and Ash. I hate giving a book from a promising author a low rating, but this book just didn't live up to the precedent set by the Castings Trilogy.
First, some background. Ember is a princess (well, daughter of a warlord) whose husband dies on their wedding day. Ash is the son of her adopted sister, so a nephew, but not a blood relative, though he's about the same age as is Ember. Cedar is Ash's brother. The "Power" Fire made a bargain with Ember's mother at some point in the past, which Ember's mother didn't honor. So Fire takes that element which he controls away from everyone -- except the wedding fire that consumed Ember's husband. We'll get to the details of the loss of fire in a minute, but on to what disappointed me about the plot.
One. It was a quest story. Where a princess who has absolutely no experience living out of doors, or fighting, or running for her life, or doing anything but taking walks and doing embroidery and thinking about her future husband, must travel to the distant north, to a mountain of fire, and take fire from there back to her land to light the hearth fires, the forge fires, etc., that have all gone out because of her mother's broken bargain (this is not really a spoiler because the requirements of the quest are detailed fairly early on in the book). Other than the fire thing, it's just a quest. Of course Ember's father sends a band of warriors with her, as well as Ash and Cedar. I've seen similar quest stories, specifically with Ember-like characters and bands of supporting warriors a lot of times before. While some of the details were unique, the plot device was not.
Two. I didn't think the conflict between Ember's mother and father was handled well. Ember's father, a warlord named Arvid, is a descendant of the race that crossed the mountains and drove Ember's mother's people out of their lands (long ago). And Ember's mother's people kept certain aspects of their culture hidden from the invaders, on pain of death. It makes sense, I suppose. At any rate, Ember's mother's bargain was part of this. Arvid is understandably upset when he finds out that his wife has been keeping secrets from him. But he refuses to talk to her about it; instead, he just orders her around and simmers silently. There are numerous scenes like this. Despite the amount of time devoted to this fight, it just didn't feel authentic because of the way it was eventually resolved (hopefully that's not a spoiler because I don't tell you whether it was a happy ending or a sad ending, and what event caused the resolution). The other conflict was sexual tension between Ember and Ash. Every tine Ash brushes Ember's arm or something, she's SO AWARE OF HIM AS A MAN. It's not very subtle.
Other things just struck me as unbelievable. Once all the fires go out, Arvid sends some people around to spread the news about the reason for this happening. The messengers we follow, Poppy and Larch, ride around and tell people, who -- in my opinion -- are a little too quick to believe their story, which is a little bit outside the realm of these people's day-to-day existence. (Very quickly after the fires go out, not one, but two people suggest "cooking" in compost heaps. In fairness, compost heaps get hot. But that's unsanitary -- and these people come up with the idea almost as soon as the fires go out, instead of really struggling with the concept and practice of not eating cooked food for a few days.)
Couple of annoyances with the writing style:
*The following passage: "Across the river, the land was different. Copses instead of forest, open glades with long grasses buzzing with insects, alive with meadow flowers, poppies and cornflowers and amaranth and, everywhere, the blue of cressbill. There were animals to be seen -- deer and elk grazing, a couple of wild cattle, their auburn coats still shaggy from winter, some ponies, small and sturdy, but looking as wild as the deer." I maintain that it's physically impossible to see that much while standing in one place (I didn't even mention the birds).
*I would've preferred dialogue tags without adverbs (or other modifiers "said with interest," "said with pride"). Would've preferred fewer verbs that were not "said" or "asked." Really good dialogue conveys what it needs to convey with the words alone, and doesn't need all these accessory modifiers. I will say this, though -- you got a sense of accent with certain words ("Mam" for "mother" and "Grammer" for "grandmother," for example.) Enough to get the flavor of the language and the way it was spoken without being beaten over the head with it.
The Ash from the Castings Trilogy is also back (as opposed to the title character Ash, who is a different person). The Power of Water is moving him through time to where he is needed most. Which basically results in him being gone at key times, and then showing up again randomly. I guess this wasn't really his book, and it shows, because he doesn't have much depth as a character here, whereas the events of the previous three books shaped him a lot.
I had hoped that the conflict between the Travelers (e.g. Martine, Ember's mother) and Acton's people (e.g. Arvid, Ember's father) would play a central role as it did in the previous books, but it was reduced to some hair coloring traits and sexual mores, and a lot of name-calling, but that was about it. That's too bad, because like I said earlier, I thought the Castings Trilogy handled race really well.
In the end, "Ember and Ash" is not the best place to become acquainted with Pamela Freeman's writing. Try the Castings Trilogy by the same author, instead.