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Alex Foster is a young English officer stationed in a small town near Hannover just after the Second World War. While the show trials are taking place in Nuremburg, Alex's role is to interview men suspected of 'lesser' war crimes to establish whether there is a case to be answered. He finds himself in an uncomfortable position when Colonel Preston, an American officer, comes to the camp and instructs him to interview a man suspected of having being involved in the brutal execution of a large number of partisans. Although they do not give much away, Alex realises that Preston and his own superior, Dyer, expect Alex to come to only one conclusion; but when Alex meets the suspect, Johannes Walther, he finds his own principles seriously compromised. Alex begins to understand that it is the Americans who are calling the shots and that Dyer is only to happy to delegate his staff to do their bidding.
Alex finds comfort in the arms of Eva, a young German woman working as a translator in the administration department of the base, and feels compelled to help when the fifteen year old sister of one of Eva's colleagues becomes seriously ill during childbirth. Few locals, even the director of the town's hospital, want to help because they claim the girl is a prostitute made pregnant by a foreign serviceman. Alex and a colleague, medic James Whittaker, try to do what they can to get the girl the medical care she needs. However, when Dyer learns what is going on he warns them not to get involved but they ignore his instruction, bringing the occupying forces into further conflict with the local people, not least the town's mayor who has political ambitions to join the German government when it is realised.
"The Kingdom of Ashes" is a novel that describes events in a particular place at a very particular time. Although the subject of the Second World War is one that I find very interesting I can't recall having read a novel that deals with the immediate aftermath of the war, certainly not one set in Germany, so this one offered a very different perspective. I found that the combination of characters made for a very balanced story. Alex didn't see any military action during the war, something the men he interviews remind him of frequently when he investigates the charges levelled at them. Then there are the men accused of war crimes, some of whom witnessed horrific sights fighting in Russia. There is also Jesus Fernandez a Puerto Rican American serviceman who makes lots of money selling whatever he can lay his hands on to his colleagues and local people alike; he sends his money home ready for his discharge when he intends to use it to set himself up in business.
On the other side are the people of Rehstadt, a town almost unaffected by the war as bombs rained down on its neighbour Hannover. The people of Rehstadt find it difficult to accept what is happening because they feel like they are suffering for what happened in the rest of Germany. To add to their unhappiness they have a displaced persons camp just outside the village and want it cleared and its inhabitants sent away. The Mayor is representative of a large number of citizens who, while not directly hostile towards the Allied troops, want to take back control of their town.
This novel covers the events of what is really just a couple of days and the author does well to confine the story to this. However, one event at the very beginning of the book seemed only partly to fit into the story and I was disappointed that it was not satisfactorily resolved even if it did serve to set the general scene in Rehstadt when the story proper commences. The novel opens as a suspicious mass gave is discovered beneath the ruins of a bombed out building. As Alex speaks very good German, Dyer sends him to find out what is happening as a vocal crowd have gathered to watch the excavations. Occasionally this storyline comes up again but I didn't feel that it was played out to a conclusion.
Where Edric excels is in the historical detail and I was able to understand the historical context of the story without an in depth knowledge of the period. I think this is a period most people have a general knowledge of but I think that reading this novel certainly enhanced it without the feeling of reading a history textbook. The Allies - the Russians, the Americans and the British - are still occupying Germany but progress is being made on slowly handing over control of the country back to the German people. The futility and subterfuge between the Allied countries in dealing with war criminals is a major aspect of the story as is the conflict between the Allies and ordinary Germans who want to try to establish some sense of normality.
In other aspects I felt that the author was just too economic with his words. Alex senses some connection between Eva and Paul Weiss, a local bar owner, but try as I might, I couldn't work out what the inference was. As for Alex having to decide that there was sufficient reason to try the men accused of war crimes, I couldn't really understand how or why Alex would go along with such vague instructions. The novel gets its name from an old story that one of the German prisoners tells Alex but yet again I failed to see its relevance in the overall story.
Robert Edric may have been successful in creating an evocative portrait of a certain place and time but I found the overall story a little frustrating because the thrilling dramatic denouement seemed to suggest that the loose ends be tied up neatly and they weren't.
A little research has taught me that Robert Edric is an acclaimed and prolific author although I have to admit I hadn't heard of him at all until chancing upon "The Kingdom of Ashes" in a bookstore. Based on this novel I would probably read at least another because it is clear that he does have some considerable talent. There are elements of an excellent story here but perhaps it just wasn't told in the way I thought it should have been.
The book does raise some interesting questions about the pursuit of war criminals; how fair were the trials, how often were the verdicts already decided and what of the trading of prisoners between the Allies? It also reminds us that even in the aftermath of war we should be compassionate and act with humanity to the defeated and there is a marked contrast between the attitudes of some of the officers towards the townspeople which did make me consider how far we blame ordinary people for the acts of their governments.
I would recommend this novel to people with an interest in the subject matter but would suggest that readers take a look at his other novels which seem to cover a varied range of themes so there should surely be something to interest most people among them.