Book Review

Out of the Ashes by MJ James

Caution warnings:

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abusive family members, references to infidelity and attempted suicide, drugging, kidnapping, poor depiction of mental health issues.

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.

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As an example, Matt was apparently traumatised by his previous partner dying in a car accident, which not only isn’t mentioned before the halfway mark, but also doesn’t stop Matt trying to get Alex off while he’s driving! A valid characterisation choice, but one that I felt needed addressing explicitly.

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.

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I was very disappointed with how the mystery plot line turned out. There was very little lead-in to the villain, and the fact that their motive appears to have been “mentally ill, potentially abused, and fixating on Alex due to a breakdown” did not endear Out of the Ashes to me. The resolution didn’t work particularly well either, because the arsonist is dealt with off-screen between chapters, and Matt and Alex are told what happened later! It felt like the story was trying to avoid any of the complications that would come with the arsonist either living or being killed by Matt. Although I would also believe that it’s just the same problem with plot and pacing that affects the rest of the book. As someone who has seen a LOT of trashy action movies in her time, having the mentor character show up and prove their respect for the protagonist by saving them makes perfect sense! But without the build-up, it just read like a deus ex machina.

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.

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Out of the Ashes by M.J. James

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  1. 1
    kat_blue says:

    …This is reminding me of bad fanfiction. The insta-love, angsty-but-unimportant backstories, and lack of outside lives of the main characters; the way plot points amp up the drama in the moment but don’t carry from scene to scene (to the point that the “main plot” is resolved off-screen and the REAL main plot is getting the leads together); the inconsistencies with the side characters and villain who is villainous for the sake of plot (it’s more drama for the moment that gets thrown out when it’s no longer needed); down to the little tropey fingerprints like “No Bi’s Allowed” and “No Lube”…I’m not saying it’s fanfiction with the fandom’s serial numbers filed off, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear it.

  2. 2
    Nan De Plume says:

    I just did a little research on NineStar Press. They are a boutique publishing house in New Mexico that specializes in LGBTQA+ romances and literary fiction.

    It is disappointing that “Out of the Ashes” suffers from so many plot holes according to Susan’s review. Hopefully the issues have been fixed after you read your ARC. I am a fan of both small/indie presses and self-publishing (but hold no animosity toward major publishers!), and hope your critique has given the author and editors valuable feedback.

    In the spirit of supporting indie authors, I discovered NineStar Press accepts unsolicited submissions here:

    Are any Smart Bitches, Trashy Books readers up for writing some LGBTQA+ romances? They *definitely* allow bisexual characters, and I don’t see any prohibitions against lube. Maybe just this one book in their line had these issues? It’s hard to say. This is my first time hearing about NineStar Press, so thanks for the review.

  3. 3
    Jamie says:

    I’m so sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy it. Are there any queer mysteries you would recommend instead?

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