Review: From the Ashes by Xen Sanders

From-the-AshesRating: 3.25 stars
Buy Link:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Length: Novel


More than a decade ago, Tobias Rutherford’s sense of humanity died along with his mother. His father has filled the emotional void with the kind of cold, calculating, and consuming ambition befitting their status as “aberrants.” Genetically different from humans, aberrants have super powers and Tobias’ is control over electricity. These powers, however, have turned aberrants into more than just pariahs, they are persecuted. Tobias’ father has styled himself into an aberrant leader and with Tobias’ murderous help, usurped power in several southeast Asian countries and turned them into an aberrant home-land called Xinth.

Now, Tobias has been stationed in Berkley, California where he’s been posing as a graduate student and teaching assistant. As his father’s second in command, it’s up to Tobias to start building inroads for Xinth to take over the United States of America. When Tobias discovers his boss at his day job is dangerously close to discovering the truth about Tobias’ aberrant nature (and a cure to “fix” the aberrant problem on the genetic level), Tobias must take things into his own hands. Even as he starts plotting to fulfill his father’s plans, Tobias’ path collides with that of ethics professor, Sean Archer.

Recently dumped, Sean is licking his wounds. While he has no intimations of starting anything serious with Tobias, he surely wouldn’t mind a little company. Yet the more time they spend together, the hotter the spark burns…until one night, it turns into a blazing fire.

When what was supposed to be a strictly one-time only event turns into a regular thing, Tobias knows he’s in trouble. Sheer physical attraction morphs into something more that neither Tobias nor Sean want or even can define. Yet there is an undeniable connection growing between an avowed nihilist and his ethics professor. Tobias feels engaged and for the first time ever, he starts questioning whether or not he shares his father’s goals for global domination.

When Tobias gets his marching order from his father, however, he has no choice but to take care business and hope there is someway to pick up the pieces with Sean when he gets back. For Tobias, even the concept of “when he gets back” is something he wouldn’t have entertained prior to meeting Sean. With the intent of getting in, getting out, and getting back, Tobias sets the gears in motion to crack the USA wide open for his father’s machinations. Even as he plans and plots, things start going downhill quickly. Old allies turn against Tobias in a bid for more power among the aberrant nation. Unknown enemies willing to use their aberrant power to stop Tobias’ father threaten the whole movement. With ever dwindling options and a newly clouded world-view, Tobias must take decisive action or risk losing everything.

To be perfectly blunt, I pretty much hated Tobias. He goes on and on and on and on about how his only role in life is to carry out his father’s will and how pointless everything is while he goes on and on and on and on about how he’s never going to have his own life. The prose does a poor job of explaining just how and why Tobias feels like he’s never going to get out from under his father’s thumb and yet, that’s the source of conflict for Tobias. On page, we see this conflict transferred onto Tobias’ love interest, Sean. What I mean by that is Tobias’ feelings that he’s only his father’s tool are transformed into Tobias only feeling physical attraction for Sean, and Tobias’ feelings that he’ll never have his own life are transformed into Tobias’ belief that there could never be any real emotion between him and Sean. So…in a manner of speaking, Tobias is a characterization of daddy issues, I suppose.

For example, we have this exchange where Sean and Tobias are talking about Tobais’ father and how he has control of Tobias’ life. FYI, Professor Langdon was found dead in the lab where he and Tobias worked, but no one knows Tobias was the one who killed Langdon:

“Sometimes I feel like it’ll always be just us,” I murmur. “He’s already planned my whole future for me. I suppose one day I’ll take his place, and turn into him. With [Professor] Langdon dead, I doubt I’ll get another position in the lab. No doctorate. Which means home to Dad. Back to the place he’s made for me.”

“You don’t sound very happy about that.”

I smile. It hurts my face, like it was carved into my flesh. “Who wouldn’t be happy about having an empire handed to them?”

“Someone who wants to be his own man.” His had is still on my arm, as if it belongs there. “You’re an adult. Your life is your own, not his. Shape it how you please.”

“And if I don’t have that choice?”

“Tobias.” He draws on my arm, urning me to face him. “We all have that choice.”

“I don’t,” I say, and kiss him.

I tell myself I do it to silence him. This is too personal, too invasive. His questions stray too close to the weakness at the heart of me, and I can’t stand any more, Yet in truth, I do it because I want to; I’ve wanted to since the first taste of his laughter.

That last paragraph perfectly reflects how wishy-washy I thought Tobias was. “His questions stray too close to the weakness at the heart of me…” It just smacks of this debate Tobias is constantly having with himself through the story: he’s half human, so he’s got emotions, but he’s also half aberrant, so he’s got to repress repress repress anything that makes him human. So he takes care of it by acting in the most human way possible.

There is a significant twist in the plot. Personally, I didn’t immediately figure out this twist due mostly to Tobias’ endless posturing as his father’s tool—which actually serves as a pretty effective red herring. I was so caught up in rolling my eyes as Tobias’ asinine inability to defy his father even when failure to do so actively works against Tobias’ personal wishes, I (like Tobias) took the foreshadowing events at face value…strange occurrences that had no clear explanation. That said, this twist is somewhat spoiled because there is at least one key scene prior to the big reveal that made it quite obvious what was coming down the pike.

One huge pill I had a hard time swallowing was that Tobias and Sean end up together again. Not that I necessarily WANT to read about romances that fizzle, but sometimes that can be an effective way to tell a story. In this book, Tobias has, in the name of Xinth, murdered hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of people in Southeast Asia….and he liked it. What’s more, when the sexual tension is still ratcheting up between these two prior to them acting on it, there are several times Tobias fantasizes about causing Sean actual physical pain (yet there seems to be zero indication that this is at all due to his or Sean’s participation in the BDSM or D/s subculture). In thought and deed, Tobias spends the bulk of the book truly fulfilling the role of a super villain. While that does add a huge element of interest because it’s not often books are told from the “bad guy’s” perspective, it didn’t work for me.

For one thing, Tobias doesn’t stay the bad guy, so it’s not like the reader is challenged to see things from the bad-guy perspective throughout the story. Nor does Tobias do anything to challenge the idea that he even IS a bad-guy; he knows his father’s out to take over the world. He knows that’s not generally acceptable behavior. But he goes along with it until he falls in love and changes sides. For another thing, another big thing, when Sean finds out who Tobias really is…sure, he’s pissed he’s been banging a mass murderer…but it’s all water under the goddamned bridge so quick, it made my head spin.

Observe:

Whirling on me, Sean shoves me. “Let go!” He rips his arm from my grip. “I knew you were lying about something, but not something like [the fact that you are an aberrant]. I slept with you. I slept with a mass murderer…”

after which Sean and Tobias have an epic battle, which culminates in this from Sean:

I’ve done some fairly terrible things of my own. I can’t judge you. Not for what you’ve done in the past. Only for what you do in the future.

It would be one thing if there were some concrete something to justify Sean’s change in heart. Even just a cursory nod to the power of unconditional love or something like “love the sinner hate the sin” or some tripe like that. But all we get is a huge blow up fight between he two that culminates in forgiveness from Sean and in Tobias’ nebulous thoughts about leaving the family fold solidifying into action (finally).

So…overall, this is a mutant-based hero’s journey type of story. In the plus column: all the tension between Tobias and Sean; how their chemistry continued to bloom even after they got sexual; being challenged to read the book from the “bad guy’s” perspective for much of the book (alas, just not all). In the negative column: Sean being okay with murder; Tobias being too weak/mindless to stand up to his father BEFORE his relationship with Sean is endangered; poor world-building regarding the social status of aberrants (we only have Tobias’ obviously biased understanding and the (albeit well-deserved) vilification of a few politicians).

camille sig

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