“My brother reaches home in the dark hours before dawn, when even ghosts take their rest. He smells of steel and coal and the forge. He smells of the enemy.”
Laia is a young Scholar woman whose world shits the bed when a Martial raid leaves her homeless and family…less and on the run herself. The Scholars have lived under oppressive Martial rule in the generations since the Martials swooped in and took over their land. After the raid that steals her life away, Laia allies herself with the underground Scholar Resistance, who tasks her with a fairly hardcore mission for a baby beginner spy: she is “sold” as the personal slave for the Commandant in charge of the military school that spews out Masks, highly lethal super killer masked assassin type peeps. She’s supposed to be spying on her and feeding the Resistance information, which is a pretty harsh toke considering the Commandant is Queen Bitch supreme. It’s there that she meets our second protagonist, Elias, a “Skull” on the verge of graduating and becoming a real grown-up Mask, a killer who hates the society that created him and longs only for freedom and peace.
I was honestly surprised by how much I enjoyed debut author Sabaa Tahir‘s An Ember in the Ashes. I read something like 140 pages the first evening I had it, and considering the fact that I work full time and usually arrive home with a brain full of mush only capable of consuming 20 or so pages before passing out, that’s saying something. I even started dreaming about it after the first night of reading, and so if you’re not getting my point let me lay it down real clear: this book sank its bloody claws in my brain and did not let go until I finished it.
While the characters aren’t necessarily the most fully realized I’ve ever read, they are still believable, and it’s impossible not get behind both Laia and Elias. I loved that Laia’s perception of herself, especially her insistent belief in her own cowardice, conflicted so enormously with the fact that almost everything she does drips with bravery; I loved her personal journey through the story, and her eventual understanding that there isn’t only one brand of courage. Her warped perception of herself rang so true with my memories of being a teenage girl, and since I related to her so hard I couldn’t help but love her equally hard.
The alternating points of view ratchet up the already taut tension to “CANNOT STOP READING” level, and I’m not scared to admit that I stayed up way past my bedtime reading this, due to both the physical act of reading and the fact that I had to calm down enough to fall asleep after immersing myself in this high-energy high fantasy adventure. An Ember in the Ashes isn’t just fun and games, however; there is substance to this yarn in the form of thoughtful themes of oppression politics, racism, sexism, and so forth and so on. Sabaa Tahir has been compared to one of my favorites, Melina Marchetta, and while I wouldn’t necessarily say she’s on Marchetta’s level yet, this is only her first book (!!!), so I’m excited to see how much deeper she can dive when it comes to high fantasy.
Now, there are a few missteps, but as far as I’m concerned they’re pretty minor. The love triangles feel cliched at this point; it’s been done in YA too much, and I’m sick of it, and I felt that it lightened what is otherwise a dark and toothsome offering in the realm of YA fantasy. I don’t begrudge Tahir the obvious romance between Laia and Elias (of course they lick each other’s tongues); it’s hot, and it makes sense, and it’s a nice break in the brutality of the narrative and a good Romeo & Juliet type love story. However, the additional love plots/complications were a bit superfluous and didn’t contribute much to the overall narrative…or at least, one of them didn’t. Jury is out on the other, and that’s all I’ll say about that because I aint spoiling SHIT for you guys.
I also struggled a teensy bit with the world building, because it smacked of the reductive worlds of bad YA dystopias, with entire cultures and races of people reduced to one word descriptive names: Martials, Scholars, Illustrians, etc. etc. etc. It was a bit too simplistic, and I have an inkling Tahir can do better.
Anyways, bottom line: I liked this book a whole freaking lot, and I can’t wait for the next one, out in August (YESSSSSSS).