Five kingdoms used to co-exist in Garn, spread across the two continents of North and South Tembria. The Kingdom of Flames was destroyed by an act of betrayal and the ruling line of Firemanes completely wiped out, or so it was thought.
As different as the setting and world of the Firemane Saga can be, there are nonetheless echoes of Magician: Apprentice in this first book of the new trilogy, mainly from the slow-burn character development, minimal plot progression and extensive worldbuilding.
The story predominantly focuses on the characterisation of the main protagonists - Hatushaly and Declan - two young men who are more than they appear to be. Hatushaly, a fiery-haired boy with rage issues, was brought up in the mysterious nation of Coaltachin and trained by the Quelli Nascoti, a legendary group of the world's best spies, infiltrators, saboteurs and assassins. Instead of commencing on Hatu's coming-of-age story from very young, he was already on the verge of becoming a man when we first get his POV, and most of the requisite 'classroom' training had been completed. At this stage of their training, students get assigned on-the-job with crew captains and at times with one of the Masters. Admittedly, learning about the inner workings of the Quelli Nascoti has to be the most compelling part of Hatu's chapters as the the growth of Hatu's character can be said to be predictable as was the revelation of his true identity. What that identity portends, however, was not expected and that gave me the promise of exciting things to come.
The other main character, Declan, was a young and talented smith, who witnessed the further collapse of the Covenant as mercenaries traversed the land to press capable men into service for the covetous King of Sandura. In my opinion, Declan's POV is the less interesting of the two main characters. There is also a third POV, who has only a few chapters to her name - Hava, a close friend of Hatu's, and the best female fighter amongst the students in his school. While Hatu is perhaps a little less so, the other two seem to be fairly cookie-cutter characters.
Feist once again demonstrated his skill of creating a world with depth and detail. There is a lot of travelling (and sailing) involved in the narrative which was used to great effect in regaling to the reader's vivid descriptions of the towns, ports, cities and landscapes; how these then impact the economics and commerce of the area depending on its strategic location. We have the cultures of the different people and of course, loads of political intrigue between monarchies, the Church and the independent nobility. One thing I note in particular was the great detail and realism present in Hatu's seafaring adventures and Declan's blacksmithing.
I appreciated that Feist stayed away from the standard magical elements such as wizards, elves and dwarves, even though I enjoyed these very much when I read The Riftwar Cycle books. The narrative of King of Ashes is low fantasy at this point, giving me more Game of Thrones vibes than Lord of the Rings. Moreover, we also get a significant amount of narrative around sex in this book, and I am still unsure as to where that stands with me right now. Don't get me wrong, I have no issues with sex in my books, but it just seemed too much like a direction Feist felt he needed to take to stay relevant in the genre.
As a foundational book to set the stage for a larger story to come, King of Ashes did a great job in introducing the readers to the main characters and the world of Garn and its people. Even though the story and characters feel familiar, the pages somehow turn effortlessly as I find myself getting quite absorbed at times. We also do not get any climactic endings of major battles nor are there plot wrap-ups of any sort to be had. I had a feeling that if I had not read Magician in its re-released omnibus edition, I might find myself feeling as unresolved at the end of Magician: Apprentice as I do now at the end of King of Ashes. Hence, I will give Feist the benefit of the doubt to fully take the plot forward in the sequel, as the last few chapters evoked the anticipation of much more to come.