Leah Bobet’s An Inheritance of Ashes is one of those YA books where everyone assumes the worst of the protagonist in every situation no matter how absurd, everyone treats her like shit, and no one is capable of human conversation. It was phenomenally frustrating to read, and by the end I hated everyone involved.
It’s also not very well written, although I suspect this is less because the author is a particularly bad writer and more that she just wasn’t a good enough one to do what she was trying to do.
This was also one of those where the longer I’ve sat on it, the more I’ve disliked it. Right after I was done it wasn’t that bad, and it’s gotten worse and worse over the past few days.
I don’t even know where to start.
Well. The stated premise of this book is that it takes place just at the conclusion of a Fantasy War, but instead of being on the battlefront, we follow the life of an NPC, Hallie, who is just trying to get by. I like this premise. There’s not enough of the unglorious in fantasy fiction, not enough exploration of how war and strife affect the little people.
Unfortunately it turns out we’re actually on the second battlefront, and the whole book kind of snaps back to formula. This was the first poor plotting choice the author made, and I got the sense she didn’t know how to write a ‘meanwhile, on the homefront’ style plot and could only think of bringing the war to the characters as a way of making it interesting. This feels lazy, since there’s a whole slew of war fiction — especially about WWI and WWII — that’s just about characters coping at home; it’s literally its own genre, and this is just really basic research. Tons of people have done this and finding out how to make it work is easy, so there’s really no excuse for it floundering like it did.
The second bad plotting decision the author made was this bizarre eleventh-hour genre switch where actually this isn’t urban fantasy it’s post-apocalyptic and actually the creatures aren’t magic they’re INTERDIMENSIONAL SCIENCE and then like fucking GLADoS shows up to explain all the SCIENCE and be mad when townies disparage her SCIENCE and just what. I don’t even understand what she was trying to do here; the entire resolution of the war plot was basically a big-lipped alligator moment. Tone whiplash all over the place.
The other big writing problem was that sometimes the prose just didn’t make sense. I repeatedly would re-read passages trying to figure out wtf was going and then and give up. Descriptions were frequently useless, making things more opaque instead of clearer, and transitions were a nightmare. On multiple occasions it felt like Hallie started a conversation in one place with one character and then suddenly she was somewhere else finishing it with another one. I could not figure out basic things like what Tyler’s MagicEyes looked like or how the Blakely clan was related to one another. And that’s not even getting into the fact that a farmgirl who grew up in isolation should not be spouting overwrought, barely-intelligible descriptions in their narration. I don’t know what the fuck is going on with YA and first-person narration, but it needs to stop because it’s a disaster.
That said, I suspect that the author was trying for the thing where she doesn’t fully explain the setting and just lets its alienness drive the plot, but that she couldn’t pull off that kind of higher-skill, conceptual wriitng (incidentally, go read Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake, it’s great). It was something about the way the prose could be clear when it wanted to, and the way the incomprehensibility revolved around plot and setting details that gives me the inkling this was intention gone awry. This goes hand-in-hand with the problem of the plot not really being a homefront plot — if the main focus is the character drama, the larger setting in incidental, and the details don’t matter all that much. But because this was actually just a typical fantasy war plot, we needed more concreteness to understand what was happening and what the stakes were, because fantasy — sorry, SCIENCE — monsters were actually driving things, not character drama that could take place anywhere, anytime. And even is this was proper homefront fic, the descriptions still have to be inteliigible, even if they’re never full worldbuilding.
But somehow, none of these were the biggest issue. The biggest issue was the characters.
The story the books seems to want to tell is this: 16-year-old Hallie and her sister, 26-year-old Marthe, are barely running their farm while waiting for Marthe’s husband, Thom, to return from the war. The stress of the situation has seriously strained their relationship and now they fight all the time, while in the past they were close. Marthe is also pregnant, making the whole situation more stressful.
Unfortunately the story we actually see is that Marthe is horribly abusive to Hallie, made worse because their father was abusive to both of them. Right at the beginning, Hallie is afraid to so much as talk to Marthe because she’s scared to hear about how stupid and useless she is. Marthe is cold and angry, and her anger terrifies Hallie. Because of the pregnancy, Marthe can’t do the physical labor on the farm, but she berates Hallie for not being able to run the 50-acre farm on her own. Hallie is desperate to please her and help take care of her, but no matter what she does, she meets, at best, cold indifference. And this is just in the first 50 or so pages. Hallie starts so broken that a complete stranger saying ‘Thank you for your kindness’ as a matter of course drives her to tears because the idea that another people could see her as kind and as having some value isn’t something she’s ever had. She is insanely beaten down.
Things get worse as the book goes on. Absolutely everyone assumes that Hallie is a liar, lazy, selfish, and conniving, no matter how ridiculous that is. Every single thing she does is met with anger from everyone around her. She stops trying to talk to anyone since they all hate her, and then is verbally abused for not talking to anyone. When the evil science creatures start appearing on their farm, Hallie tries to handle the problem herself as a way to help Marthe, and then is berated for not asking for help. When Heron and Tyler, the only people who treat her like an actual person, confide massive secrets to her, she’s berated for not breaking their confidence. When she finds out Thom is still alive but trapped in another dimension, that she doesn’t within 24 hours make all of her decisions and tell everyone is apparently a sign that she’s now the abuser.
That last one was where the book just completely lost me. It was so beyond any misunderstanding any reasonable person could possibly have. Either Marthe is a fucking idiot, or a complete monster, and honestly, signs point to the latter. Hallie is dealing with two people’s secret lives, and the evil science invasion, and now she finds out her dead brother-in-law is alive but she has no idea how to help him. Heron and Tyler are the only people who treat her like a human being; of course she wants to keep the promises she made them. And the idea that not immediately telling Marthe that Thom was a dimension ghost — which Marthe already knew — makes her ‘cruel’ and a ‘monster’ is insane. She has no idea if she can rescue him. She has no idea if he’s still alive. And it’s entirely reasonable for her to think that if she tells everyone he’s okay and can be saved and then it turns out that’s not true she’ll be abused and shunned. She didn’t even have a day to sit down and think about the situation, but apparently wanting some time to collect herself makes it totally fine for Marthe to scream at her, tell her she’s inhuman, tell her she’s no better than their abusive father, and then it’s also okay for their neighbor to tell her that their uncle, who was the only adult who was ever kind to her, was actually a terrible person and trying to emulate him made her terrible too. (Also, did you know that if you can’t singlehandedly save family members from an abuser you’re worse than the abuser? TIL!) Hallie has a complete nervous breakdown at this point and just is unresponsive, and honestly, I don’t even know what Marthe is trying to accomplish by the end. Hallie was already broken at the beginning; Marthe had complete power over her. The only thing left would be to drive her to suicide, which she almost did. But like, why would she even want to do that? Hallie is her workhorse, the whole point of abusing her was to control her and the farm, if Hallie dies Marthe actually has to work.
The gaslighting of Hallie was so over-the-top that it actually started affecting me. I kept feeling like I’d missed something huge because I couldn’t believe the stuff the book was saying about Hallie. I mean, maybe I did? God knows the text wasn’t a bastion of clarity, maybe one of the paragraphs I couldn’t figure out was about how Hallie was like, secretly Hitler or something.
And THEN after getting heaps of abuse for not immediately acting and knowing what to do to help Marthe and save Thom, Hallie decides, understandably, the only reasonable thing left to do is act, so she tears open the dimension hole and pulls Thom out, which is also somehow the wrong choice and now her neighbor friend is calling her a lunatic and refusing to speak with her, because literally everything Hallie does is wrong.
And then at the end we find out the town Hallie was supposedly ostracized from doesn’t actually hate Hallie and both the father and Marthe were lying about that to isolate her, and somehow Marthe isn’t pure evil. The book ends with Marthe telling Hallie that she never once thought her incapable or stupid how could she think that! despite the fact that this is all we see Marthe say and do, and the gaslighting is complete because Hallie blames herself for assuming Marthe hated her and thought she was lazy and stupid just because Marthe constantly told her she was hated lazy and stupid, but clearly that’s not what Marthe meant, somehow. The only good thing is that once Marthe gets her husband back she seems to stop abusing Hallie and even lets her leave the farm at the end with the only two people who were nice to her, so at least poor Hallie escapes, but I have no idea what the fuck was going on with the characters in this book. I don’t know how Marthe could possibly come across as anything other than terrible, and I don’t know how Hallie’s constant failure could possibly have seemed like a good thing to do to a protagonist. Even weirder, this is a pattern in YA, and it’s a really disturbing one. If you were trying to train young girls to accept abuse you couldn’t come up with a better plotline than ‘everything you do is evil and wrong and the people who tell you that actually love you.’
I think the people refusing to fucking talk to each other about the plot is just incompetence. A lot of these authors don’t seem to know how to plot well enough that simple conversations wouldn’t solve the problems, so tension is created artificially by having adult humans incapable of basic communication, which lets the plot can get more dire while they are all mute to each other, instead of characters trying to solve something together and struggling because it’s actually a complex problem. Also, no one in YA seems to know how to do character drama, which I suspect is because no one knows how to write actual characters. I kind of wonder if the fact that YA has become such a moneymaker means more books get picked up than would otherwise, and as a result the quality of the writing keeps getting pushed down.
Also, and this is an aside — it’s been a while since I read YA, and the print in this book was HUGE. Why was it so big?? Do publishers thing teen girls are stupid and blind?
This book was exhausting. This genre is exhausting. Just let teen girls read actual books like boys do and let’s be done with this.