Deep into the end of Spring semester, I read Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes with only the barest amount of knowledge about the hype surrounding it. Essentially, I knew people were loving their ARCs, but not much else. I was able to secure the library’s first copy in advance and read it almost immediately…. And totally fell in love. Like, hardcore, fell in love with a book.
Let’s situate ourselves: An Ember in the Ashes is high fantasy YA, set in a society governed by extreme martial law. Five hundred years in the past, the world was divided into societies that valued different things; the Scholars cared for learning above all else, and the Martials war. Then brutal emperor Taius, was able to unite the Martial clans. Somewhat predictably they decided to take over the world, with resounding success.
At the start of the novel, the characters live in what was once the Scholar empire. The Scholars are no longer allowed to read, write, own possessions or facilitate learning in any way. Any deviation from the rules results in enslavement or execution. At the outset of the story, the only hint of supernatural forces are a group of fourteen immortal Augurs, associated with the Martials, who are mind-readers and seers. That changes quickly, with dark forces, long hidden, coming out of the woodwork at every turn.
The novel is told in dual first person perspectives: that of Laia, a Scholar and Elias, a Martial. This was a surprisingly effective move on Tahir’s part. Understanding both the oppressed Scholars and conquering Martials from the inside was really cool. Lately, there have been a lot of narratives about conquest in YA fantasy and there’s always something that leaves me a little uncomfortable about the way the stories (and often romances) are told. This wasn’t like that.
Tahir’s strength here is that she doesn’t shy away from the incredibly cruel nature of the Martials, they brutalize the Scholars and each other, they murder, they steal, they rape. They’re awful, but not entirely unsympathetic. Elias is the bastard son of one of the ruling families, but he grew up away from the Martials, abandoned by his mother. He hides his disgust for the Martials’ behavior and plans to run away, but he’s drawn into political intrigue. Through his eyes, we see the toll acts of oppression takes on the oppressor; the Martials are crumbling under their own cruelty. The young soldiers at Blackcliff Academy are conscripted into service and beaten and brainwashed into submission, but there are moments we see how much it hurts them.
Yet Tahir isn’t overly sympathetic to her violent overlords. Through Laia, a young Scholar who has everything taken from her by the Martials, we see an unforgivable perspective of the Martials. Laia, is not an unwaveringly brave hero. When her family is murdered and her brother kidnapped, she runs and feels deeply ashamed of it. She approaches the Scholar Resistance for help and is recruited as a spy in exchange for aid. Through Laia, we see the incredible violence the Martials inflict upon their Scholar slaves and I should warn you that those sensitive to torture and rape may want to approach this text carefully.
The book has been compared to Game of Thrones, and in some ways the comparison is apt. Tahir paints a difficult picture for us to look at, but it’s important nonetheless. Conquering societies are abusive and violent and the Martials are an accurate portrayal of conquest. Yet, where Game of Thrones can verge on gratuitous, Tahir very clearly uses the Martials as representation of how evil conquest is for both conqueror and conquered. There is clear condemnation and resistance in An Ember in the Ashes, which sets it apart from other similar novels.
The other place where An Ember in the Ashes stands above others in its genre subset is that Tahir doesn’t only create complex characters, she creates complex political situations. Many times in similar books, there are sympathetic characters from the “bad” society, but the society itself is viewed as flat and corrupt, while the “good” (and oppressed) society is equally flattened in its inherent goodness. In this case, there is very little that is clearly good or bad. We find that there is cruelty in the Resistance, and deep wrongs committed by the Scholars before they were overtaken by the Martials that may bring about the apocalypse.
But in all that darkness, there is the light of humanity that struggles to be good. There’s Laia, who forces herself past her fear and into bravery. Elias, who is grasping at the last strands of his humanity for dear life. Elias’ best friend Helene, who is loyal to the violent Martials to a fault, but loves so deeply she becomes something else.
An Ember in the Ashes has some very light romance, that I would categorize as “attraction” rather than a love story. This is another place where Tahir sets herself apart. Elias and Laia may feel attraction for one another, but they are always aware of their roles. If there is a deeper romance in subsequent stories, let’s just say it will be appropriate, rather than the kind of icky that happens when there’s “romance” between the oppressor and slave.
And this is where the really good news comes in: at the time of An Ember in the Ashes’ debut, Penguin had only optioned Tahir for one book, though the end left no doubt in my mind that there needed to be a sequel. Luckily for all of us, a second book is in the works and will be published in 2016! We here at CBC couldn’t be happier, because we adore this book so very, very much and Sabaa Tahir is a gracious and lovely person. An Ember in the Ashes took the #2 spot on the NYT Bestseller list in the YA category and is holding steady at #5, which is absolutely amazing.
So basically, YA hits it out of the park again for quality characters and storytelling. You can get completely lost in An Ember in the Ashes, it’s the real deal for fantasy: a complete escape. Go get it and wait with bated breath for the sequel with the rest of us. As usual, you can sit at our table, where we wait for whatever’s next for our fantasy darlings.
Allison Carr Waechter is cramming all her spare time with fantasy and sci-fi these days, tea in hand, cat snuggled in. Mosquitoes are trying desperately to kill her and squirrels are eating all her bird seed. Holler at her on Twitter if you need something.