Book review by
Mandie Caroll, Common Sense Media
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Alchemy and magical horses star in solid dystopian tale.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Fantasy meant to entertain.

Positive Messages

Positive messages about dedication, loyalty to family and community, and doing the right thing (even if it is, sometimes, against the rules) mix with the values of the dominant Ashlord culture, which values success at any cost and rewards ruthlessness. What it means to be a good person in a world that is built on violence and injustice is a central and vexing theme.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Phoenix horse riders Imelda, Pippa, and Adrian are fierce, talented, and loyal to their respective communities and loved ones, though the latter two have been taught to win regardless of who gets hurt or killed. Both Pippa and Adrian grapple with betrayal and showing mercy to others. The Ashlords, the oppressive class, are dark skinned, the Dividians are white, and Longhands fall somewhere in between. Enemies and allies cross group lines at times in this complex social universe. Women and men appear equal in this world.


Lots of violence, some gore. People are injured and killed using guns, swords, switches, batons, etc. One secondary character dies when he steals a phoenix horse, who retaliates by killing the man in an inferno. A chaotic battle scene ends in many deaths, which are mostly not described in detail.


Some very subtle romantic energy between two main characters, and some brief kisses shared between opposite-gender couples.


Mild and sporadic language throughout including "fool," "dammit," and "jackass."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A couple of scenes where characters have an alcoholic drink (wine at dinner, cocktail at reception), no drunkenness.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Scott Reintgen's Ashlords is the first book in a duology about phoenix horses who flame out at night and are reborn as the sun rises, as well as the young people who race them. Imelda, Pippa, and Adrian, have much to lose in the brutal, multi-day Races, and the stakes couldn't be higher: Escalated oppression and civil war threaten to sweep them up regardless of who wins. In a world that values success at any cost, characters struggle with betrayal, what it means to do the right thing, and loyalty to community, family and self. Characters represent a variety of skin colors, described variably as "dark-skinned," "pale," and "golden." Very mild when it comes to sex (a couple of quick kisses) and language ("fool," jackass"), this book delivers on violence. Characters use guns, swords, switches, batons, and poison to injure or kill, but the violence is not excessively gratuitous or gory. The unique conception of phoenix horses, the alchemy that lends them different powers upon rebirth, a touch of blood magic, and a complex politics mean this action-packed tale will appeal to a variety of readers.

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What's the story?

ASHLORDS opens with Imelda, as she scatters components into the ashes of a phoenix horse before it's dawn rebirth. As a Dividian, the Empire's lowest social caste, Imelda can't afford to train regularly or enter races, but videos of her brilliant phoenix alchemy and wild riding tricks go viral and draw the attention of the Ashlords. They offer her a scholarship to participate in "the Races," a brutal, multi-day race that riders generally train their whole lives for. Pippa, a famous amateur racer, is the favorite -- as the Ashlord daughter of former champions of the Races, it's in her blood to win. Adrian is a Longhand, a caste of violently repressed rebels, who's in the Races to begin a new revolution against the Ashlords. Told in the alternating points of view of these three characters, the elaborate pre-race ceremonies and violent nights of the Races as riders defend their phoenix ashes or seek to preemptively end the race for other entrants make for a fast-moving read. The context of the Races -- an empire on the verge of civil war -- raise stakes that aren't resolved, laying fertile ground for Book 2.

Is it any good?

This exciting fantasy featuring horses with phoenix powers and interesting characters is weighed down by the inclusion of too many ideas. The descriptions in Ashlords of phoenix horse alchemy, their deaths and rebirths, and the thrill of riding these magical creatures is beautifully portrayed. The tightly drawn world of the Races runs like a movie in the reader's mind. Imelda, Pippa, and Adrian have compelling motivations and conflicts. Their efforts to be better than the world expects of them are powerful.  

Reintgen falters in world building and included several confusing story elements. The Dividians were failed invaders -- that's why the Ashlords oppress them -- but it's a mystery that the Dividians stayed in the Empire at all. Overlaying racial and class differences on this already complicated society means it's difficult to draw parallels to the world we live in now. There are also gods who favor the oppressive Ashlords and enslave spirits in the afterlife, but readers never learn why on either account. This book is a mixed bag -- an entertaining read that leaves the reader with lots of questions. Luckily for readers who get hooked, there'll be a sequel.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the three main characters in Ashlords. Why do you think the author chose to narrate the book through these three people? How is effective do you think that storytelling approach is? 

  • What are your thoughts about the violence in Ashords? How does it compare to violence you've read in other books or seen in movies or on TV? Do books have to have violence in order to appeal to teens? Why or why not?

  • Obligation to family and community play a big role in this book. What are the rewards and costs for each character who chooses loyalty above themselves? How does your family think about obligation?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love fantasy and dsytopian novels

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