Drawn in Ash (A Legacy of Ink #1) – John Otte

Drawn in Ash by John W. Otte
Series: A Legacy of Ink #1
Published by Geeky Grace on December 7, 2022
Genres: Fiction, Christian, Fantasy, Speculative
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The Dynasty claims to be a veritable paradise where a multitude of races live in peace and harmony. Everys knows better. The Dynasty has been broken since it was founded, with the human nobility oppressing many of the peoples they’ve brutally conquered, including her own. As an illegal mage, for Everys to stand up to the injustice would mean risking her life, so she hides in a rundown corner of the capital city, content to live in obscurity. But then she is brought to the palace and forced to marry Kind Narius, the descendant of the tyrant who destroyed her people’s homeland. Maybe this is the chance she’s been waiting for to make things right.
Due to sacred law, Narius has to be married for his reign to be legitimate. He can’t marry the woman he actually loves, so he has to settle for another. Unfortunately, the young woman he chose seems determined to cause him nothing but trouble.
Thrown together by circumstances they can’t control, Everys and Narius must set aside old grudges and painful legacies to forge an uneasy partnership before the Dynasty’s enemies destroy everything they hold dear.

Just over a decade ago, I was getting my start as a book critic and came across this little Christian spec-fic publisher that was just getting started called Marcher Lord Press. One of their early titles was a YA superhero novel about a teenager with superpowers struggling to fit in, solve crime, and win a reality show competition called America’s Next Superhero. It was fun and fresh—think The Incredibles meets Sky High with Christian themes—and I was hooked. I followed Otte’s career as it progressed but, when Marcher Lord Press was bought out and became Enclave Publishing, Otte’s writing career stalled. It’s been a few years, but he’s back and he’s used his time away well, inventing a rich, layered, multifaceted world with engaging characters, a nuanced theme, and a plot that will make your head spin.

At first, Drawn in Ash appears to just be a sci-fi take on the biblical Esther story. King Narius is in need of a new queen and, unbeknownst to her, Everys the Siporian has been chosen for reasons political and strategic. Overnight, she goes from being a poverty-stricken woman of a conquered people group to queen of the Dynasty. The first quarter of the book follows this journey, as Everys struggles with this sudden change of lifestyle and the realization that she’s intended in some ways to be only a ceremonial figurehead. It’s when she chooses to use her new power to shake up the establishment that things begin to be fun.

King Narius turns out to be much more complex and thoughtful than Everys originally perceives. As the young king of a large Dynasty, Narius is forced to balance keeping peace within a kingdom that encompasses many races and beings and continuing the expected legacy of conquering and expanding. War and conquest have created the Dynasty, but now it is killing it and Narius is desperate to find a way to forge a new type of empire. Together with Everys, they begin to do the impossible. But upsetting the status quo can awaken the most terrible enemies.

I don’t want to give too much away because every page of this book is a gift. Otte crafts his world to perfection. His magical system and how that plays out through the book is captivating in its simplicity and weighty in its symbolism. He builds the foundation for a larger world that will be explored in future books, dropping in just enough background to ground the story without being overwhelming in exposition. Set aside a good chunk of time for this book, because you’ll find yourself lost in the story. No lie, as I write this review, I keep finding myself referring to the book to check a plot line or the spelling of a name and I get caught up in the story again, reading to the end of the chapter.

You could read Drawn in Ash purely as entertainment and it would be an enjoyable, compelling ride. But slow down just enough and you’ll see how Otte has drawn from our current cultural moment, using both a futuristic setting and ancient biblical symbolism, to show how all of human history is caught up in the issues facing Everys, Narius, and the world in which they live. It’s about America. It’s about ancient Babylon. It’s about race relations, reparations, colonialism, and community. It’s about war and peace, religion and politics, diplomacy and radicalism.

Otte balances all of these themes perfectly, weaving them into a cohesive narrative tapestry—a true work of art that undergirds the action and mythology of the story. John Otte has created a fully-realized world that mirrors our own, allowing us to explore all of these difficult topics in a fresh way that’s free from the familiarity and bias of reality. That’s what the very best fiction does. It allows to explore reality in ways we can’t explore within reality. We think, we learn, we grow in this fictional world, then we return to our reality with a new perspective.

Drawn in Ash is absolutely captivating—the best sci-fi I’ve read in a long time. The only thing I have to compare it with in terms of philosophical and moral worldbuilding is Orson Scott Card’s Enderverse. Of course, only one book in that might be a premature comment, but not since Xenocide had I closed a book and reflected so long on the novel’s moral premise. From the first page to the last, John Otte had me entranced. I don’t know where the story is going, but I’m in it to the very end.