So I just finished reading a copy of Skies of Ash by Rachel Howzell Hall and I’m still not sure where exactly I acquired it. I mean, it was in my Crimefest bag, so I guess I got it at Crimefest but I can’t remember actually being given it, or picking it up. Anyway, I reached into my Crimefest bag and pulled Skies of Ash out at random. So I read it. And instantly it was kinda nice not to be reading another crime novel about straight up murder.
Skies of Ash is about an arson at a Los Angeles home which kills a woman and her two children. The woman’s husband wasn’t there, and turns up mid-blaze to try and save them, but is tackled to the ground by a fireman before he can enter the house. Juliet Chatman and her two children, Chloe and Cody, are as dead as disco, and it looks like someone set the fire deliberately. Detective Elouise (Lou) Norton and her partner Colin Taggart are put on the case to determine who wanted to kill the Chatmans.
The novel is told from Lou’s perspective as she begins to unravel the complex case. Skies of Ash is actually the second Elouise Norton novel (which I haven’t read) but I never felt like I’d missed anything or had to stop and read the first one first. Lou is an interesting character. She is fundamentally strong, intelligent and witty but she also seems to battling with self-worth throughout the novel. Her husband is a notorious cheater, and she keeps taking him back. In the very first scene of the novel, we see Elouise and her husband, Greg gearing up to have sex after Elouise takes him back…again. It’s a weird introduction to the character, as she is put in a situation where she is weak and not in control. It made me not like Lou as a character, because I didn’t really understand why she was doing this to herself.
None of the character are very likeable. The characters that inhabit the Los Angeles police force are all self-involved, conceited asshats. For example, Lou’s partner Colin is the kind of guy who when you say ‘Say hello, Colin’, says ‘Hello Colin.’ You get it. Asshats. The suspects and people populating the case are equally horrible, most likely because they are the prime suspect at one point or another.
The case of the Chatman fire is long and twisty. By which I mean, the case of the Chatman fire is too long and too twisty. Most of it comes down to how Lou and Colin mainly found out information. Far too many of the revelations come through telephone calls and interviews. The middle of the novel is just bogged down in conversation after conversation and the whole thing grinds to a halt. What’s more – some of the revelations just seem needless and give off the unfortunate tangs of filler. Of course, when you get down to it, a certain amount of any crime novel is needless revelations and filler, but others mask it better than Skies of Ash.
Lastly, a few things in Skies of Ash didn’t ring true for me. Lou’s husband works as a video game developer, so cue the sigh-worthy video gamey dialogue from someone who clearly doesn’t know about video games. I’m fucking sick of shit like this in books, to be honest. Ready? I’m gonna call them out:
1 – Cody Chatman is found burnt alive clutching a Gameboy Advance, but DS cartridges are found in his suitcase. That means he must have a DS, which plays Gameboy Advance games, so he would have no need to be playing his Gameboy Advance. He would be playing his DS, and if he wanted to play a Gameboy Advance game, he would still be playing his GODDAMN DS.
2 – One time, Greg says his office is having trouble designing Level 3, but video games haven’t really worked in terms of levels in a long time, and if it is a level, video game developers would most likely have a nickname for it. Calling something a ‘level’ in a video game is rather archaic.
3- Towards the end of the novel, Greg says that IGN wrote an article about how is going to fail as a developer, but IGN would never ever do something like that. IGN are more about reporting video game news, and do not really have such angry opinion pieces, especially not about games that aren’t out. They wouldn’t risk the advertising money. Now, Polygon, on the other hand, do have opinion pieces and often have strong, dividing articles. So there.
4 – But hey, at least Hall didn’t squeeze in pandering video gamey quotes like ‘A winner is you’ or ‘The princess is in another castle’. Oh wait…they’re both totally in there. Also, Lou says she’s going on a ‘side quest’ at one point which was about as lame as it sounds.
If you’re not a gamer, these things are probably trivial, but for me, it entirely pulled me out of the story. It almost feels like Hall did too much research. She’s hitting the right piano keys, but in the totally wrong order. And that’s even more infuriating than if she’d done no research at all.
There’s something fundamentally aggressive about Skies of Ash and the way it’s told. It gets up in your face and never really steps back for a breather. I think there’s something to this story and Lou as a character, but it’s all so bogged down in a labyrinthine case with too many swirly paths that wrap around themselves and make a mess. Skies of Ash left me exhausted, and unlikely to pick up another Lou Norton novel.
Skies of Ash is a little too cluttered for its own good. There’s too many clues, too many red herrings, too many phone calls and interviews and too many unlikeable characters. There’s something to Lou Norton as a central character but her good traits are massively obscured by a central plot that never lets up and sags in the middle. You could indeed go far worse than reading Skies of Ash, but when it’s all over and the fire’s been extinguished, you might be left wondering if it was worth getting burned.
SKIES OF ASH by RACHEL HOWZELL HALL