An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
Published by Razorbill in 2015
Series: An Ember in the Ashes #1
Genres: Young Adult, Speculative Fiction
Here is a debut novel (the first in a series) that is a page-turner and definitely worth a read. The story, which starts slow, building characters first and then the world, picks up pace and moves swiftly to the end. At no point during this action-filled narrative to do you want to put the book down. The tension and mystery are maintained throughout by excellent character development, which makes up for the slightly derivative aspects of these kinds of stories. Even the side characters are incredibly well-developed and in a short amount of time. Small actions result in large consequences throughout the narrative.
The story is set in a vaguely Roman world where the Martials are the violent subjagtors of the cultures that they defeated centuries ago. Laia is a young woman from the slave culture known as the Scholars, and lives with her brother and grandparents in the city. When her brother is arrested by the Martial military, Laia is forced to contact the underground Resistance to help free him. She is sent into the Martial military training academy as a spy for the Resistance in payment. It is here that she meets the other protagonist, Elius. A student of the academy, Elius is conflicted about his place within this brutal society and wants to run away. By the designs of the Imperial magicians, he is unable to seize his chance and this brings him face-to-face with Laia. Together they need to survive this violent school. Enter the expected love triangles and romantic tension, which add a lightness to the generally dark plot.
What I particularly enjoyed about Tahir’s writing is the disparate voices between the two main characters. The story is told from their points of view, and because they are so different you are never confused about which perspective you’re reading. She uses them to illustrate the disparity between the slaves and the oppressors, and how these views are carried down through the generations strongly by tradition. It becomes an examination into the myriad ways we can fall prey to ourselves and others, and how no one is safe in this society, not even those meant to protect it.
Overall, I enjoyed reading this book. I’m excited to get into the next book to see how the world and it’s magical aspects are fleshed out, which was missing from this book. (I expect that to have been done on purpose because character building was an important part of this book). I would recommend this book to adults and older teenagers, I think the strongly hinted-at threats of rape are too explicit for younger readers.
I see why this book was so hyped, and I’m glad I read it.