SPFBO Finalist Review: We Men of Ash and Shadow by H.L. Tinsley

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About H.L. HL Tinsley is the pen name of professional blogger and creative writer Holly Tinsley. Based in the UK, she is a published author of Fantasy, Gothic Horror and Grim-dark fiction as well as a regular contributor to gaming, TTRPG and pop culture websites and blogs. Her work has been featured in Horla Magazine online, An Hour of Writes and by the British Fantasy Society journal ‘New Horizons’.

FORMAT: Self-published by the author on October 1, 2020, We Men Of Ash And Shadow is the first book in the Vanguard Chronicles. It's available in ebook, paperback, and audio format. The book is 204 pages long. Cover illustration by Luke Michael Copsey.



We Men of Ash and Shadow is a Gaslight fantasy that takes place in The city of D‘orsee. The city, which is locked down tight and hugely divided by class, is run with the iron fist of one Captain Felix Sanquain and his squad of Red Badges.

The story mostly centers around John Vanguard, with whom in the employment of Sanquain, quietly takes care of any of the problems that Sanquain needs removed, and also Tarryn Leersac (a young man whose family has fallen from the elite) that Vanguard mentors for a time. The characters were a big draw to the story for me- especially Vanguard and Tarryn, who in a weird way hit my love of buddy stories. 

There was an easy feel with the characters- the way they spoke, and moved through the story, interacting and touching (this sounds weird but sometimes the small gestures that people use with each other- like a hand on a shoulder, etc. are forgotten). And with their thoughts, which I felt were presented in ways that I was able to sympathise and understand them as people- even Tarryn, who was pretty much a nut job and not someone I would generally find any sympathy for. 

While I liked the characters and their interactions, I wasn’t too crazy about the pov jumping. It got worse as the story progressed and the cast grew. And for me, it gave the story an unfocused meandering feel that made it seem like a lot longer of a book than it actually was.

I think we could have done without a lot of the side POVs, because with each new viewpoint I was wondering how this person was going to be important enough to see their headspace, distracting me at times from where the story was actually headed. Especially once that mentor/friendship (which I was pretty invested in) fell away and needed something to keep me wanting to come back.

I enjoyed the world-building, the city had a seedy, dangerous feel. I loved the easy way we were led through the story and especially enjoyed the mentorship that started between the two men.

I did find it was very light on the fantasy elements. The unseeable ability of the two men was never explained and I sometimes wasn’t sure if they really were not being seen, or if they were just good at staying in the shadows. (Later there was a scene that proved they definitely weren’t being seen)

All things considered, I enjoyed this story, with a little reigning in of the POVs it would have scored a lot higher with me, especially since I’m a sucker for those damaged, walk-the-line, kind of characters and them finding a place in among others, who hopefully will help them to be better people (or at least better than the worst).


We Men (as I’ll refer to it, for brevity) primarily concerns the intertwined stories of John Vanguard, an aging veteran with a form of PTSD, and Tarryn Leersac, a noble boy caught caring for his mentally unwell mother. When the two men discover the other can do something they thought only they themselves could do—namely, fade from attention and visibility, even in the densest crowds—their interactions complicate the lives of both men.

For me, the strength of We Men is in the powerful prose and in the descriptions of the grim setting. The story is set against the slum-ridden city of D’Orsee, where a rigid class separation exists. The lower class areas are choked with immigrants, thugs, and whores and Tinsley’s writing really plays up the brutal day-to-day reality for the citizenry. The episodes delving into Vanguard’s war trauma are also quite well-executed and a good look into how such things can damage a person for life. Such a person may be complicated but ultimately, difficult to relate to.

And that was kind of my issue overall. I never really connected with Vanguard. He’s damaged but I’m not sure I found him all that interesting. Tarryn has a more interesting character arc that’s very well-written and I empathized with him early on but ultimately he becomes so unlikable that it was hard to stomach his scenes late in the book. I very much enjoyed some of the secondary characters—notably the bulky Kosic, an immigrant mired in indentured servitude, and Henriette, a hard-nosed brothel madame with a soft spot for Vanguard—but due to the book’s short length, these characters did not get a lot of page time. I would love to have read more on them both, especially as they interacted with Vanguard. The overarching Big Bad was rather one-dimensional.

The book has a somewhat omniscient-third-person POV going on. There’s a lot of head-hopping in scenes and in some places the leap was so jarring that it did knock me out of the flow of the narrative. And this book is the lowest of low fantasy; aside from being set a secondary world and the ability of Vanguard and Tarryn to fade from view (which had not been explained through this volume), there aren’t any fantastic elements to speak of. With very little change, this could have been set in mid-1700s France. That’s not a knock against it but also not at all my bag.

We Men isn’t a bad book at all. I found it easy to read and the writing was direct … but because I couldn’t connect to the characters and with the sudden changes in perspective, it really wasn’t for me. It’s a decent, quick read that should appeal to fans of low-fantasy, grimdark, and omniscient POV.


I will be brief. We Men of Ash and Shadow is well-plotted and full of surprises. It gets right into the action and hardly lets up for the next 200-plus pages. 

Tinsley handles the politics and the narrative without resorting to info dumps. I applaud her for that. She has a knack for nice and catchy sentences and openings. They make the story engaging. Vanguard is a sympathetic and well-rounded antihero. Not likable, but interesting enough to sympathize with. 

I would gladly rate the book higher if it were not for the constant and annoying head-hopping. I'm not sure if the idea was to write the book from the omniscient perspective. If so, it's not smooth and the omniscient narration switches to third person limited in places. The constant perspective changes significantly decreased my enthusiasm for the story and made it difficult to finish. And I like omniscient, when it's done right (examples: S.P. Miskowski's The Worst is Yet to Come or Little Dead Girls by Mercedes M. Yardley).

Overall, It's a solid read, well-paced, well-plotted, but with weaker characterization in secondary characters and infuriating perspective shifts (subjective). Worth a read anyway.


OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: We Men Of Ash And Shadow is a debut that showcased Holly Tinsley writing skills. As my fellow Bloggers have so eloquently highlighted the spectacular facets of this book. I really enjoyed this dark story set in a city on the simmer. This city is a character in itself and Holly Tinsley does her best to showcase all of its goriness and the people struggling within.

In this regards, this SPFBO finalist shares a particular similarity with Norylska Groans. Both these titles give a visceral experience with regards to the cities that are both terrifying and yet immensely appealing. D'Orsee is a city that has various people struggling with poverty, disease, misery and more. It's also all being controlled by a semi-sociopathic politician who is playing a game of his own, everyone else be damned.

 The author certainly has a way with characters as she gives us POVs from a whole bunch of them. I particularly enjoyed Kosic who is a minor character and a terrific pugilist. He's also got a record that's enviable. I was also fascinated by Vanguard and his ability to help folks whenever and wherever possible. He also adopts a dour attitude as he believes himself to be cursed and truly wants an end. His landlady Henrietta is another fascinating character that I hope we get to know more about. Holly Tinsley really has a knack for giving us conflicted characters who are a veritable delight to read about.

Lastly there were a few things that I thought that didn't jive with my enjoyment of the book. The book has a strange way of switching POVs in midst of the story and it happened all too frequently. I wish there was a way that the author had inserted breaks or something to denote the POV changes. Also there isn't much of a magic system and there's not any explanation given about the powers showcased by Vanguard and Tarryn. 

 I still think there's solid potential showcased within this debut and I will be eagerly awaiting Holly Tinsley's sequel. We Men Of Ash And Shadow is a solid dark, low fantasy debut that will have its fans who will be awaiting the subsequent titles with baited breath. 


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