SPFBO 7 Review: We Men of Ash and Shadow by H.L. Tinsley

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I have seen good reviews for this entry, including some current judges, so I had high hopes when I started it and I wasn’t disappointed. The opening line for this was fantastic and caught my attention right away – I love it when that happens.

“It was the most highly recommended venue the city had to offer. It was called the Ring O’ Bastards and it had the lowest patron-to-murder-victim rate in a five mile radius.”

The opening gives promises of a violent and gritty book to come, and it delivered.

D’Orsee is an unforgiving city, and Vangaurd could be considered one of the more dangerous men someone could come across while wandering around the streets. He’s a bit of a mystery at first. What the reader does know is that he was saved by a guy named Sanquin who pulled him out of the Hole… an underground prison where he was kept for three years. He had gone half mad by the time Sanquin pulled him out; but this was not any gesture of kindness or benevolence. Sanquin owns him now, and this is not a man you want to piss off. He’s brutal and also the leader of the city of D’Orsee.

Vangaurd does the dirty work for Sanquin, he’s used as an assassin/thug to take care of Sanquin’s loose ends or people that have pissed him off. The people on his list aren’t the kinds of people anyone is going to miss. Most of his victims are murderers, rapists, or slavers — some kind of low life who the world is better without. Vanguard doesn’t relish what he does, but he doesn’t lose sleep over it either. He’s sort of neutral, cold, and aloof when it comes to the duties assigned to him from his boss.

There’s another character, Tarryn, and he’s a very mysterious character as well and his arc went from grey to dark grey to black. For reasons we aren’t privy to right away, Tarryn is basically invisible to most people, and he’s shocked that Vangaurd is able to see him. Tarryn has been living with his mother who has a moderate-severe case of dementia making him her full time caretaker. Working in hospice and elder care I perked up at this because I don’t see it addressed that often despite the fact that almost 1/9 senior citizens will develop dementia in one form or another. He also killed his father. He has a dark seething hatred for the world that fails to notice him, and he’s on the breaking point when Vangaurd bumps into him. Vanguard recognizes the murderous tendencies in Tarryn and eventually he tries to take him on as an apprentice. I thought this was going to go the way of Dexter, where Tarryn is taught how to pick out the worst people in society and focus his violent needs on them, taking out only those who ‘deserve’ it. However, the plot to this book twisted and turned a number of times, so although that was a brief part of the story, there’s a lot going on in this book.

It took me a while to come around to Vangaurd, but he did manage to grow on me starting around 30% and by 50% I was invested in his success. It took a while because he can be cold and not particularly charming in any way. I do like the relationship between him and Henrietta who runs the brothel where he sleeps at night. He has the utmost respect for her and what she does because she’s the only brothel in town that takes care of its girls and makes sure they don’t end up dead in an alley. She knows it’s not the best life for the girls, but it’s better than some more likely alternatives if they leave. They have a platonic love and that’s not often seen in fantasy. However, for most part, he’s a cold person I think as a defense mechanism because he’s been through a lot. Not just the underground imprisonment, he also went nearly mad with starvation when 300 men including himself were cut off from supplies and starved to death. He’s presumed to be the only survivor and it haunts him continuously. I came around to him when I started to see glimpses of who he was before/during his hardships which was teased out over time, he’s not instantly likeable but he can definitely grow on you. He also does have a moral backbone and lines he won’t cross, and he does have a fierce loyalty of a kind.

There’s also another side character, Kosic, who used to live on the plains but when he was 13 his family told him they had to move and they came to D’Orsee. He’s a very reluctant pit fighter who’s also gone eighty-three matches in a row without losing, he’s known as Kosic the Giant. He often thinks of himself as a circus bear being prodded into performing. I always find enslaved fighters to be exceptionally grim, there’s just something about someone being forced into committing atrocious acts and being broken that way that’s just so depressing. His chapters were honestly my favorite even though we don’t get nearly as many as the other two POVs.

I felt like Henrietta and her girls were cast in a great way, they knew the dangers of harboring Vangaurd. They knew that he went out and killed bad guys at night and it could bring down consequences on them. They chose to let him stay on purpose wanting to keep someone like him on the streets to balance things out since the city is so overrun with fuckasses.

The world building I felt was in depth in regards to the city they were living in, but I didn’t know much about the world outside of that. The rest of the world is left as a mystery since travel between cities is strictly limited. To get from one place to another there’s a lot of paperwork involved that goes into traveling between cities and almost no one can obtain them all. The citizens of D’Orsee are prisoners. I would really like to see more of the world because at the moment all I know about is one city. It’s a very in depth city, and it’s enormous — but I’d still like to know what the rest of the world looks like.

D’Orsee has been broken up into rigid segments and there’s a caste system associated with it. The Golden Quarter is where all the authority figures and rich people live, meanwhile in the Black Zone everything is shitty and bleak. Or, as the author more eloquently put it, “a kaleidoscope of grey.” This is not a city to take lightly, it’s dark, it’s brutal and unforgiving. Violence is common place and lots of rape is mentioned in the background so to speak. It’s not a place where women are safe, and sexual assault is mentioned, but it’s not on page.

The prose was great. The author is able to conjure a rich and engaging atmosphere using a minimal amount of words. This book is pretty short, it’s only about 200 pages and it reads very quickly. The amount of detail packed into such a short book without becoming burdensome or overwhelming is to be applauded. It was also a clean book without copy edit errors that I could find.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this to the grim dark crowd that likes lower fantasy and grey characters. This is one of the stronger books in my batch and I think it could be a lot of peoples favorite read.


  • Plot: 12/15
  • Characters: 12.5/15
  • World Building: 12.5/15
  • Writing: 13.5/15
  • Pacing: 12/15
  • Originality: 12/15
  • Enjoyment: 7.5/10

Final Score: 82/100