When a review request pops up in my inbox for a vampire novel set in Scotland, by a Scottish disabled author and featuring a disabled character, there was no doubt that I was going to have to check this book out. Girl of the Ashes was also recommended for fans of two of my favourite urban fantasy authors as well. The question is, was it as good as it sounds? You can see my star rating above, so you know the answer to that already, 😉 Read on to find out more!
I am also thrilled to be able to bring you an interview with Hayleigh Barclay, author of Girl of the Ashes, for GeekDis, my collaborative event for the disabled community to discuss disability representation in pop culture!
This book was provided for free by the publishers in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to the publisher for the opportunity to review Girl of the Ashes!
There are scenes of violence and physical abuse, mentions of torture, and reference to the treatment for hysteria (lobotomy) as was common in the 1900s.
An urban fantasy novel set in Scotland, written by a disabled Scottish author, and recommended for fans of two of my favourite YA authors? I didn’t think this book could sound any more awesome – but there’s also disabled representation as well?! Yes, there was zero hesitation from me in accepting this review request 🙂
I am most intrigued by a couple of things mentioned in the synopsis. First we’ve got the Inservium who sound positively terrifying, and then there’s “Phoenix Vampires”. I love different vampire mythos and the ways that individual authors add their own ideas to the pre-existing mythology, so I’m really curious to know whether “Phoenix” is just a name or something more. Since the name of the book is Girl of the Ashes, there’s a bit of a suggestion to something more there…
Then we have an ancient curse. All good stories have ancient curses that mess things up, in my opinion! They’re the type of thing that always lead to good character development because they either can’t be broken or they require something truly spectacular or virtually impossible to break them. I wonder what it will be in this one?
I found myself falling in love with Barclay’s prose from the very first few pages. The book begins in present times, setting the scene at the end of our anti-heroine’s story, and then she takes us back to the beginning of her story. I found Elise to be an easily likeable character, but I have a penchant for characters who are free spirits and who don’t care what people think. As we learn more about Elise, it becomes clear that she’s had a difficult life and her few fleeting moments of happiness have been snatched away from her. She’s a far cry from the Elise we’ve met briefly in the present day, and this just draws the reader further into the story as the mystery of her story is unravelled piece by piece.
Girl of the Ashes is a familiar story in a way; it’s a story of a young woman trapped in circumstances beyond her control and desperately doing anything to fight them. It’s one that I recognised, and I think a lot of readers will too. I don’t know whether Barclay intended for there to be any metaphors, but I couldn’t help comparing Elise’s struggle with the Inservium with the disabled community’s struggle with the Government. Her feeling of helplessness, her constant fight to get out from under their control, and her need to break the power they have over her. Perhaps I’m looking a bit too much into it, either way her plight felt familiar to me.
When Elise finds out that she’s a member of a powerful family of vampires, the situation changes, and at first she’s not sure whether that’s for the better. Learning that you’re actually a vampire is never an easy pill to swallow, and right on top of that revelation are a whole lot more – including that it’s time to go to war with their ancient enemies the Inservium again, and she’s caught up in an ancient curse too! In most young adult novels, the protagonist usually dutifully accepts all this with information with some mild exclamations, and then off they go to save the day. Not in Girl of the Ashes! I appreciated that Barclay writes an authentic character who takes one look at the vampires around her and starts edging towards the door!
There are a lot of scenes in Girl of the Ashes that feature this honest, down to earth frankness, and many of them feature three particular characters; Elise, Natashka and Mhayree. Both Natashka and Mhayree are older Phoenix vampires who, in very different ways, teach Elise about who and what she is. Natashka is a disabled vampire who became paralysed in an accident and becomes close friends with Elise. They quickly develop a rapport, exchanging banter and laughing with one another like best friends do. Mhayree is a friend of the family, and more like an aunt, and her ice-cold sassiness is just fantastic.
The disabled representation in this book is, as I expected, spot on. Wheelchair users in 1897 were uncommon, especially outside of hospitals and asylums, and Barclay carefully includes this information in her story at relevant moments. It doesn’t feel like she is overloaded the reader with information because she’s not, she lets the story flow and feeds the historical facts in at the right moment. What I noticed in particular was the room that was given to Natashka and her movements as a disabled person and the language used to describe her movements. Additionally, scenes included other characters doing things that she was unable to do, such as placing items on the ground. There was no awkward explanation or dithering around the subject, it was just done because Natashka’s friends helped her to do it. Just as someone would do for their disabled friend in real life. Overall, the entire disabled representation in Girl of the Ashes felt more genuine than I’ve seen in books and that is the difference that the lived experience of a disabled author brings to disability representation.
As for the Phoenix vampires themselves, all I will say as this is a spoiler free review is that you will not be disappointed. The lore that Barclay has created is beautiful, chilling and visually stunning. It is an absolutely wonderful addition to vampire mythology that has such a remarkable origin story.
I was captivated by Girl of the Ashes from start to finish and thoroughly enjoyed following Elise’s story. Girl of the Ashes ends in a way that works for a standalone novel or sets the scene for a second book. I am hoping very much for a second book because I want so many more tales of the Phoenix vampires, their family and their companions. I want more tales of Elise and Natashka, and other people that I can’t name!
Books by Hayleigh Barclay
Interested in more books by Hayleigh Barclay? Check out a selection of titles in my store.
Over to you
Hayleigh also has a Readalong organised for Girl of the Ashes. It starts on the 1st October and is going to have loads of behind the scenes gossip and other goodies. If that sounds like your sort of jam, then head over to the Big Bite Readalong on Facebook!
Don’t forget to check out the rest of my reviews if you’re looking for some more book recommendations 🙂 You can also now sign up for my newsletter to get an email each month with a list of my new reviews!
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