In We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire, Joy McCullough (Blood, Water, Paint) portrays the inner workings of a young woman whose anger ignites like a gallon of gasoline touched by a lit match.
Em Morales is the youngest sister in a close-knit family. As the book opens, she is preoccupied by her older sister’s court case. Nor, a college student, was sexually assaulted outside of a frat party and is pursuing justice through the legal system. The jury finds Nor’s attacker guilty, but a sympathetic judge sentences him to time served. Outside the courthouse, a furious Em goes viral for commenting that the sentence makes her want to learn to use a sword. In fact, violent revenge is the subject of the book’s parallel narrative, a series of poems written by Em about Marguerite de Bressieux, a 15th-century noblewoman who hunted rapists.
We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire explores how one person’s traumatic experience can ripple through an entire family and depicts how trauma can affect every person differently. Nor wants to put the horror of the past behind her and rebuild her life, but Em is consumed by her anger. Though the book features many strong and unapologetically feminist characters, the extent to which Em’s own feelings are foregrounded is sometimes uncomfortable, given the other characters in the book who have personally experienced sexual violence. Nonetheless, We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire is an unusual novel that readers drawn to complex, imperfect protagonists will appreciate.