Everyone is different and likes and dislikes different things. Reading is no exception. One person’s all-time favorite might seem too bland or too high stakes for another. That being said, the opinions of our judges in this contest are just that, opinions. Just because we let a book go, doesn’t mean it isn’t good. It could be your next favorite, who knows?

Now that we are in the finals, we are going to be doing full reviews for each book. The books are being reviewed in no particular order, not in order of their star rating. We are just reviewing them as we finish reading them.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you can learn more about the contest here.

Today we are reviewing We Men of Ash and Shadow, which was the Weatherwax Report’s pick for this year’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. You can read their review here. And you can see the finalist spreadsheet here.

We Men of Ash and Shadow (cover)Amidst the gaslamp shadows former soldier-turned-mercenary John Vanguard hunts criminals at the behest of his corrupt employer, Captain Felix Sanquain. Shamed by his deserter past and seeking to make amends for his many misdeeds, a chance encounter with Tarryn Leersac—a skilled, young, would-be-assassin fallen from the graces of high society—leads Vanguard to become an unlikely mentor.

Charged with hunting down the killer of two guards left washed up on the banks of the canal, the further Vanguard delves into the underbelly of the city the more he finds himself entangled in a web of secrets and lies. A prominent aristocrat is missing. Crime lords, con men and harlots run amok and the city teeters on the brink of another revolution.

With his already precarious reputation hanging by a thread, Vanguard must piece together how and why the last war came to pass, find a way to earn redemption for his mistakes and come to terms with the past in a city where few survive, and even fewer can be trusted.

Our Thoughts

The city of D’Orsee has seen civil war, a fight between the rich and poor. But now it has a different problem. Captain Sanquain took over after the war and divided the city into sections based on people’s social rank and wealth, to keep a class war from ever happening again. But he didn’t just put them in their place, he made it almost impossible to leave the city. You stayed where you were put forever, and you didn’t complain or else you might disappear in the night.

For while Sanquain controlled the police, he also employed assassins and thugs to do whatever dirty work he didn’t want to be officially connected to him. Vanguard is his best, and everyone knows it. But he doesn’t kill because he wants to or at random, he kills men who he’s told to kill. Men who do things even the other criminals and mob bosses think beneath them.

During one of his scouting missions, he finds a different kind of lost soul, one the city has only seen once before. Someone who has the ability to step into the shadows, just like him. Someone he decides, for better or for worse, to take under his wing.

Most of our judges loved We Men of Ash and Shadow. It has the grim of a grimdark book, but the heart of something lighter and more hopeful. Well, at least some of the time. And that’s one of the reasons the book is so good. Its characters are gray, but they truly range the full spectrum, from black to white.

The setting is low magic, but our judges liked how the magic and the setting played off each other. The world feels real, a world where you can taste the ash in the air and feel the shadows closing in around you.

The characters were our judges’ favorite part. They are alive and deep. They have their own personalities, thought processes, and ways of seeing what’s wrong and right. Some of them might be bad people, some of them just in bad circumstances, but each has found a way to move forward instead of wallowing in their misfortune. That might mean killing for a living or for fun, or it might mean making sure the other women in the pleasure house are comfortable and cared for. It might even mean doing things against your moral codes for the betterment of your family.

If you like grimdark, low magic settings, or assassins you should read this book. If you like deep characters and interesting world settings, you should read this book. Basically, if you like good books, we think you should read this book!


We Men of Ash and Shadow is quite good. Main character is an interesting middle-aged Lawful Neutral assassin. Well written and with an interesting city, where a failed revolution caused five years of complete anarchy and famine, leading to the current state of oppressive martial law, where virtually no one is allowed in or out of the immense city.


I loved the characters in this story. They all had their own motivations and ways of dealing with the chaos around them. Even the side characters felt real and like they had lives outside the main plot of the book. There were good people doing bad things, bad people doing good things, and everything in-between.

This is not a high magic world, but the magic that does exist feels right in the setting. It’s used to draw people together and becomes part of the user’s personality. It’s as if you couldn’t imagine them any other way.

While it would be considered grimdark, it’s not _nearly_ as grim or dark as some of the other books I’ve read in this subgenre. The world is a terrible place to live, but some people still see the good that still exists or could exist someday. The glimmers of hope make you root for them to make it, instead of just watching as they spiral into the darkness of their world.


I found this so very weird at the start, but once I got into the story, I loved it! I reviewed this some while ago, and just copy my review in here:

The setting feels mostly like a medieval-ish city, but every now and then there’s a little bit of modern things like guns or photographs. I kept forgetting those as most of the story was knives and guts and politics, but the reminders never actually annoyed me, but rather made it feel yet a little bit more unique.

The main character is…different. He has a talent to go about unseen. He’s an ex-soldier and kills for a living. He does have a conscience though, and only kills scum. He suffers from mental health problems, but somehow manages to just keep going. He sounds a bit slow at times. Not stupid, no, just in his own world. I absolutely enjoyed his company! I can say I can’t remember any similar lead character in any book, and I loved how unique and different he was! There’s more to him than that, but that would be spoilery.

All the characters here are some sort of shady or outcasts. Be it killer for hire, gang boss, whore, murderer, or even the man who just makes bodies disappear. There are those with morals, and those without. They aren’t all bad, they are a product of the grim world they live in. Then there’s bad guys working for something good, and it’s a constant readjustment in your mind about who you root for. And I love that!

The story is twisty and about politics, but easy to follow. It was a quick read I just couldn’t put down once I started! For such a short book there’s quite a cast, and a lot of backgrounds, but it all fit in smoothly and never felt info-dumpy or “too much”.

This is a grim and bloody one. Plenty of guts and sinew all around. I got “Jack the Ripper” vibes at times. Do not read that if you don’t like gore or being in the head of definite antiheroes, at least part of the story.

If you like gray characters and seeing the slow change in people, then this is brilliant!


There are some great dialogues and delightful turns of phrases. Unfortunately, the writing is not enough to stave away the ennui of reading a predictable plot with generic grimdark characters.


Tinsley’s writing is very descriptive, she makes it easy to picture the bleakness and hardship of life in the poor quarter. Her characters may be morally grey but many of them still hope for better things. I especially loved Henrietta’s brothel and the lives of the girls within. They genuinely cared for each other and were not just written for gratuitous sex scenes. I didn’t even mind the chopping and changing of POVs (or head hopping) for me it seemed quite natural. All in all, I enjoyed this book enough that I read it twice!

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Our judges are Amber Freeman, Jennie Ivins, Julia Kitvaria Sarene, Kartik Narayanan, Kerry Smith, and Lynn K. If you’d like to learn more about us, including our likes and dislikes, you can read about them here.

Any queries should be directed at me, Jennie Ivins, via DM on Facebook and Twitter.


By Jennie Ivins

Jennie is the Editor of Fantasy-Faction. She lives with her math loving husband and their three autistic boys (one set of twins & one singleton). In-between her online life and being a stay-at-home mom, she is writing her first fantasy series. She also enjoys photography, art, cooking, computers, science, history, and anything else shiny that happens across her field of vision. You can find her on Twitter @autumn2may.

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