In Ashes Lie by Marie Brennan
In Ashes Lie, by Marie Brennan
Obit Books, June 2009, ISBN 978-0-316-02032-9
I love Marie Brennan’s historical fantasy fiction. She is not only a knowledgeable historian and folklorist, but she is able to effortlessly “speak the language” of the times of which she writes. This allows the reader to slip into that time as a passive observer, rather than being educated by lecture. It makes reading her books that are based on historical fact a learning experience, as well as an entertaining one.
I first came across Marie Brennan shortly after her historical fantasy, Midnight Never Come, was published in 2008. I was immediately captured by her story of the faerie court that existed below London, and was caught up in how the fae interacted with their human counterparts above. This earlier book chronicles the political intrigue that existed in England from 1554 to 1603, and twines together the fate of two queens: Elizabeth I and the cruel Faerie Queen Invidiana in her Onyx Court, as witnessed by the faerie courtier Lune, who has fallen out of favor with her queen. Lune will eventually rise against Invidiana and wrest control of the court, ushering in a kinder, more cooperative reign with the English monarchy.
In Ashes Lie takes up where Midnight Never Come leaves off, with Lune struggling to maintain control over her fractious kingdom without reverting to the cruel policies of her predecessor. Having to battle not only internal intrigue but also threats from other faerie kingdoms (specifically from Ireland and Scotland) who resent the Onyx Court’s “meddling” in mortal affairs, she is forced to weather the storms that rage in London, above. The year is now 1639, and Charles Stuart sits on the throne of England – but not for long. Less than 10 years later, Charles had been executed by his subjects and England had been plunged into civil war, ushered in by Puritan John Pym and championed by Oliver Cromwell, commander of the New Model Army and Lord Protector of the (now) Commonwealth. Through these tumultuous years, through the restoration of the monarchy in 1661, and into the devastation of the Great Plague (1664 – 1665), we are given an inside view of the mortal realm through the humanitarian efforts of Sir Anthony Ware, alderman and Lune’s Prince of the Stone.
For you see, Lune does not rule the Onyx Court in isolation. Among all the fae, the London faction believes that their lives are inextricably entwined with those mortals who inhabit London, and they observe, interact, and indeed at times influence those human lives. The Prince of the Stone is the Queen’s mortal consort and is a partner in the power and magic that holds the Onyx Palace in place deep beneath London. Lune’s first Prince, Sir Michael Deven (introduced in Midnight Never Come) was named out of love. But being mortal, he has aged and died, leaving Lune bereft and needing another to fill his place at her side, but not in her bed. This is where we meet Sir Anthony Ware, who chooses to aid the faerie court in the belief that his sacrifice (for it is a sacrifice, in that he must bind himself to the underworld of the fae and its secrets) will benefit England itself. Anthony sees beyond the political struggles, and attempts to straddle a moderate course in a highly polarized world. He brings a rare and sympathetic humanistic touch to Lune’s rule, as well as to the political chaos of the human Parliamentary struggle.
Lune herself is not immune to chaos and political machinations. She finds herself beset by treachery, betrayal and conflict from within and without, and indeed, is bested and forced to flee the Onyx Court and London itself by a vindictive Scottish faerie queen. But she gathers to herself the knowledge of not only fae ambition and foibles but also the advantage of human experience to retake her palace, only to hold tenuously to an extended siege that threatens to topple her completely. And so, the conflicts that rage below mirror the turmoil that runs rampant above.
The defining struggle of In Ashes Lie, however, is played out through the Great Fire of London, which breaks out on Sunday, September 2, 1666. Although our human history attributes the origin of the fire to errant sparks at Thomas Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane, Brennan gives it a much more sinister origin: the henious plot by Nicneven, the Gyre-Carling of Fife, to bring down Lune through complete devastation of the perceived immoral connection of the London fae with their human counterparts. Aided by a dire beast of magical origin, the fire ravages London, laying waste to the city and threatening the Onyx Court itself.
Brennan deftly weaves all these disparate and clashing motives and efforts of this tumultuous time in Britain’s history into an intimate understanding by allowing us to witness it through the eyes of Lune, Anthony, and the various fae and humans who are caught up in the conflicts, both human and mythical. Her narrative is intuitive rather than scholarly, so we are able to interpret the history which unfolds through the reactions of the characters, rather than through a litany of facts and figures. In this way, we are able to understand the affects of the times viscerally rather than intellectually, allowing for an emotive response that keeps us enthralled. While I know woefully little of British history, I was still able to become engrossed in the story without having to run to Wikipedia for an explanation of the various players and events. I’m not sure that there are many authors who could claim this grasp of history and imagination.
I would highly suggest, however, that before reading In Ashes Lie, you first read Midnight Never Come. Although the human protagonists change (as they must, being mortal), Lune remains the central character, and the faerie domain is firmly established in the first volume, allowing for a better understanding of the events that affect Lune and the Onyx Court in In Ashes Lie. You could read In Ashes Lie by itself, but your experience will suffer some for it.
Be warned, though – not all of Marie Brennan’s works are of the same stature as Midnight Never Come and In Ashes Lie. Her previous fantasy novels of Warrior and Witch are vastly inferior to her historical fantasies. Imagination will not prove to be enough of a bolster for a great book, and without the historical underpinnings of Midnight Never Comes and In Ashes Lie, Brennan flounders. But using real human history as a backdrop, Brennan shines, and her abundant imagination then becomes something you will definitely want to experience for yourself.