Mari is a sizar, a poor student who is allowed to study at a special college for witches in exchange for acting as a servant of the college, and consequently, their wealthier students. A group of these students, known as lady undergraduates, are up to no good. They don't think the sizars should be there, so one of them has gotten hold of a powerful wand. With it, they hope to reinstate the Old Bylaws of the college, which will discriminate against the sizars. When Mari discovers their evil plan, it's up to her and her friend, Francesca, to set things to rights before it's too late.
A Handful of Ashes felt a little more mature than the other stories I've read so far in Under My Hat: Tales from the Cauldron, the anthology in which it's found. I would categorize it as more of a New Adult fantasy, because unlike the other stories which have teenage protagonists, the two main characters in A Handful of Ashes are about to graduate from college. The university Mari and Francesca attend is a special school for training witches, and they are known as sizars, lower class students who are there on a kind of scholarship in which they earn their education by acting as servants to the upper class students. A small group of these lady undergraduates are bullies who treat the sizars like they don't belong at the college and are up to no good. They are trying to subversively reinstate the Old Bylaws, which will discriminate against the sizars, so when Mari realizes what their plan is, she and Francesca must try to stop them before it's too late.
I had a harder time getting into this story than the others I've read so far. I know that Garth Nix is a fairly popular and well-respected author in the genre, but I couldn't help feeling like the story was a little overburdened with details. Normally, I would consider the use of lots of detail to be a good thing, but here it just felt like it bogged things down a bit. I found the use of some magical words with which I'm not familiar and a fairly complex backstory on the college's bylaws a little hard to wrap my head around. Meanwhile the story was moving forward while my brain was trying to play catch-up. I also felt like the villains didn't have much motivation for their evil deeds other than them simply being the snobbish, "mean girls." Additionally, up to this point, the other stories in the anthology seem to be aimed at a middle grade or young adult audience. While there is no objectionable content other than a couple of bad words, I felt like the more advanced vocabulary and extensive use of details make this story less accessible to the middle grade audience at whom the book, in general, seems to be aimed. It's more appropriate for the slightly older YA readers. Overall, A Handful of Ashes was a decent story that did have some entertainment value. I enjoyed the underdog vibe of the main characters, but it just didn't spark my imagination in quite the same way as the other stories have.
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