In MJ James’ debut Out of the Ashes, Alex Porter loses everything when the bookshop that he rebelled against his wealthy family to build goes up in flames. His overbearing mother insists that a fire marshall be called for, so Matt Fields has to drop everything and devote himself to the case, and Alex.
I wanted to like Out of the Ashes. Queer mysteries are my wheelhouse, and I’m always looking for new authors! The initial introduction of characters and problems hung together well, and the story was fast-paced enough that I burned through it in a day. Unfortunately, I still had several problems with it.
Most of my problems are with the writing and editing, with the caveat that I read an ARC sent to me by NineStar Press so some of these problems may have been fixed. There are many errors, like references to conversations that never happened, an arson charge that disappears, or the core belief of one character at the start of the book becoming something that they had never believed in by the end. The protagonists’ backstories don’t feel like they have any true influence on their current actions, either.
It feels like all of the narrative beats are there, but none of the groundwork is done to support them. They feel like they’re put there more because that’s what those tropes should lead to, than because of any character development. For example: Alex’s mother is controlling, throwing her name and power around to get what she wants, and sweeping in to make Alex’s life fit her preferences. Alex’s frustration and complete distrust works well initially, but halfway through the story she has a complete change of heart that not only doesn’t feel earned, but that Alex accepts at face value. From there, their reconciliation is handled in one paragraph, which somehow fixes all of their problems.
Another example is that Matt’s relationship with the police chief, which starts off fairly acrimonious, to the point that Matt suspects him of trying to set Alex up. However it ends with that plotline dropped in favour of the chief suddenly becoming a trusted mentor despite not having a scene where Matt’s suspicions are overcome or addressed at all.
It also doesn’t help that the scenes that could work for that development are glossed over or summarised. Their first date is at a salsa bar, which could have been an opportunity to build the tension, but instead it’s glossed over, with Alex and Matt talking afterwards about how hot they found it. Even the conclusion of the mystery is narrated by a third party because neither of the protagonists are present at the time. It feels like poor storytelling.
That’s all without getting into any of the things that are my personal squicks, like “no one seems to remember that both bisexuals and lube exist,” “please stop trying to have sex in that hospital bed,” and the entire relationship hinging on their instant sexual attraction and mysterious soul-mate draw, to the point that they’re engaged in less than a week. It also doesn’t help that neither of the characters really felt like they were part of a community, or had any friends outside of each other, which means they and their story felt unmoored.
I don’t think I’d recommend Out of the Ashes. I want to, because it has a promising premise, a clear understanding of narrative structure, and it is compelling. I just don’t feel like the writing lives up to the potential.