We Men of Ash and Shadow takes place in a low-fantasy world. In fact, there is really only one fantastical element to the plot (which goes unexplained for now). With its gaslamp setting, it could quite easily work as a Victorian mystery with killers stalking fog-bound cobbled streets and bodies being fished from the canals that wind through the city.
The primary viewpoint character is John Vanguard, a former soldier, somewhat haunted by his actions in the last war and now beholden to the ruthless Captain Sanquain. In return for being freed from prison, Vanguard acts as an enforcer, using his (almost) unique ability to move unseen to kill people that Sanquain wants out of the way.
Despite his cold and violent nature, Vanguard is shown to be capable of caring about people, particularly being protective of women. There is also a need to connect with someone as seen when he makes Tarryn Leersac, the second viewpoint character, his protege; and a deep sense of responsibility, shown when he decides he has to deal with what Tarryn becomes.
Tarryn is shown with a degree of sympathy at first; having to look after a mother suffering from dementia and suffer the mockery of the wealthy they were once a part of. However, it doesn’t take before a truer persona begins to emerge, one that is petty, entitled, and frequently malicious. Once he gets a taste for violence, something initially encouraged by Vanguard, it seems almost inevitable that the two of them will clash.
The violence, when it happens, can be brutal, and often casual, but not gratuitous. The same could be said for the language, which seems fitting for both the setting and the majority of the characters. As said above, aside from the one element, the world feels very true to reality.
I did like the degree of history given to the world. Hints of events prior to the novel, the bulk of which are in relation to Vanguard, are scattered throughout the book; enough to colour characters' actions and ambitions but without drawing attention away from the main plot. I think I would have liked a little more of the political make-up of the city, as well as more from Sanquain’s perspective, although the latter might have unbalanced the novel. And, since a sequel is set for later this year, there is the hope that those will be revealed in the future. I certainly did not feel the plot was lacking in any way and I enjoyed this enough to keep an eye out for the second volume.
7.5 out of 10 unseen assassins.