The Depths of Conquest: An Ember in the Ashes

Deep into the end o20560137f 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.

Advertisements

Spring 2015 YA Wrap-Up

No, spring isn’t officially coming to an end yet, but it’s starting to feel like summer (after a very long New England winter), and it seems like the perfect time for a spring YA recap before I give you a sneak peak at summer releases. This season has been very special for me: I launched Spellbinding Books, attended three author events (and live tweeted for the first time), met many local YA authors, and a bunch of my favorite 2015 releases finally hit the shelves!

Event Photos: Lori Goldstein’s Becoming Jinn Launch, Jen Brooks’s In a World Just Right Launch, BTAF Trivia Night

I was thrilled when Lori Goldstein asked me to live tweet her Becoming Jinn launch party at Porter Square Books on April 27th. It was wonderful to meet her after I recommended her book (read my post here). She talked about her journey to publication, writing habits, and inspiration for Becoming Jinn. She also had a surprise for us!  Teens acted out a scene from her book: Azra celebrating her 16th birthday with her sister jinn. Then Lori answered questions, signed books, and we all socialized over food and drink. Many YA authors, whose books I’ve recommended, were there to support her: Camille DeAngelis (Bones & All), MarcyKate Connolly (Monstrous), and Jen Brooks (In a World Just Right), who I interviewed in April. I also met Mackenzi Lee, whose debut This Monstrous Thing I will discuss next week.

On May 3rd, I live tweeted Jen Brooks’s launch party at the Community House of Hamilton and Wenham. The place was packed with her fans, family and friends, including the YA authors I mentioned above and Rhonda Mason (author of Empress Game, a summer release I will discuss soon). We socialized over food that was inspired by her book before entering the auditorium to hear Jen give a moving speech about her journey to publication and her inspiration for In a World Just Right. She showed us photos from her past and a beautiful book trailer, answered questions from the audience, and signed her book for many excited fans.

On May 7th, I attended the Boston Teen Author Festival Sneak Peak at the Cambridge Public Library Teen Room. Eight authors (Lori Goldstein, Jen Brooks, Trisha Leaver (The Secrets We Keep), Jen Malone, Annie Cardi, Karsten Knight, MarcyKate Connolly, and Rachel Shane) introduced themselves, read the first page of their new books, and answered questions from the audience. We also played trivia–authors vs. audience–and there were prizes (I won lots of new books!). We ate cupcakes and cookies, got our books signed, and socialized. I met bloggers and authors (including Shari Becker, whose book The Stellow Project I’d just won). All three events were so much fun, and if the Freshman Fifteens Spring Break Tour is headed your way, you must go (here’s the schedule).

Now let’s talk books! Here’s a recap of the other spring releases I’ve recommended at Coven Book Club:

20560137

20345202Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes explores familiar themes in fantasy–tyranny, slavery, rebellion, magic, family loyalty, and forbidden love–in a complex and unique way. Set in a brutal Rome-like world, the novel alternates between the perspectives of Elias, an elite soldier, and his mother’s slave, Laia. (Read my full recommendation here).

Melissa Grey’s The Girl at Midnight  is a perfect choice for readers of Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy and Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series. I immediately loved this book’s protagonist, seventeen-year-old Echo, a runaway pickpocket whose home is a hidden room in the New York Public Library. Echo has been adopted by the Avicen–an ancient race of feathered people with magical abilities who live beneath the city–and she is the only human who can see them. (Read my full recommendation here).

16096824

18798983Throne of Glass fans will love Sarah J. Maas’s first book in a brand new series: A Court of Thorns and Roses. Inspired by Beauty and the Beast mixed with faery lore, this series features another strong heroine: nineteen-year-old huntress Feyre. After she kills a wolf in the woods, a beastly creature demands retribution by taking her to a faraway magical land inhabited by the Fae. (Allison and Nicola also love ACOTAR, and be sure to check out our discussion post on Monday 5/18).

Renee Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn has all the elements of a great fantasy: magic, a tyrannical villain, a strong, yet conflicted, heroine, a thrilling and suspenseful plot, amazing world-building, power struggles, moral dilemmas, and complicated romance. It is also inspired by A Thousand and One Nights. Every evening eighteen-year-old Khalid, the ruler of Khorasan, takes a new bride whom he executes at dawn. After he kills her best friend, sixteen-year-old Shahrzad (Shazi) leaves the man she loves and volunteers to marry Khalid. (Read my full recommendation here).

1819020820814989Virginia Boecker’s The Witch Hunter brilliantly reimagines an alternate 16h century England (Anglia) where magic is real and forbidden. The kingdom has always been divided by Reformists (magic supporters and practitioners) and Persecutors (magic opposers). The plot is fast-paced, action-driven, addictive, and full of twists and turns. There’s high-stakes adventure and romance, mystery, dark magic, a deadly curse, unlikely alliances, betrayal, and sacrifice. (Read my full recommendation here).

Sally Green’s Half Bad and Half Wild is another fantastic series about witches that takes place in modern-day Europe. Witches secretly coexist with humans and are divided into two warring factions: White (“good”) versus Black (“bad”) witches. Nathan, as a half code, is at the heart of this conflict. (Read my recommendation for Sally Green’s trilogy, along with Aisha Saeed’s Written in the Starshere).

1954785620649195-121853636As I was reading Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, I was reminded of another book: Leah Thomas’s Because You’ll Never Meet Me. While their stories are very different, Thomas’s debut is also about the close bond that develops between two male teen pen pals who are strangers in the real world. (Read my full recommendation for these book buddies here).

In Courtney Summers’s All the Rage no one believes Romy Grey was raped—certainly not by the sheriff’s son, Kellan Turner. Romy was once popular, but after she speaks up about being sexually assaulted her former friends won’t stop bullying her. (Read my full recommendation here).

I can’t wait to meet Melissa Grey, Renee Ahdieh and Becky Albertalli, among many authors, at the Boston Teen Author Festival in September. I love the YA community!

Alyssa Raymond recommends new and upcoming releases in young adult fiction at Coven Book Club and its sister site Spellbinding Books. She thanks Edelweiss, Netgalley, the Boulder Book Store, and publishers for providing her with ARCs and DRCs for review purposes. Please follow her on Tumblr and Twitter.


Love Thy Enemy? The Wrath and the Dawn, by Renee Ahdieh (Spring YA)

If you’ve read my other book recommendations, you probably know that I really enjoy YA fantasy, including folktale re-imaginings. Some examples: Monstrous, The Lunar ChroniclesRed Queen, An Ember in the Ashes, A Court of Thorns and Roses, and The Orphan Queen.

Today’s post is no exception. Renee Ahdieh‘s The Wrath and the Dawn (on the shelves 5/12) has all the elements of a great fantasy: magic, a tyrannical villain, a strong, yet conflicted, heroine, a thrilling and suspenseful plot, amazing world-building, power struggles, moral dilemmas, and complicated romance.

18798983It is also inspired by A Thousand and One Nights. Every evening eighteen-year-old Khalid, the ruler of Khorasan, takes a new bride whom he executes at dawn. After he kills her best friend, sixteen-year-old Shahrzad (Shazi) leaves the man she loves and volunteers to marry Khalid. She knows she probably won’t live past the first night, but she wants to stay alive long enough to take revenge. Fortunately, Shazi is clever, witty, and able to captivate Khalid with her storytelling–which saves her life.

But her mission becomes more complicated than staying alive. As days turn into weeks and Shazi gets to know Khalid better, she has trouble seeing him as a monster. She wonders why he’s been killing his wives at dawn. As she struggles to understand him, her beliefs and loyalties are tested, and she unwillingly falls for him. But what about her beloved boyfriend Tariq? And if she loves Khalid, can she still kill him?

Let’s talk about Shazi’s complicated romance. It’s difficult these days to write about star-crossed lovers in a fresh and compelling way. Many readers detest a love triangle and having “a heroine fall in love with her enemy” is cliched too. But like the other YA fantasy books I’ve recommended, The Wrath and the Dawn generally avoids  being stereotypical because Shazi is a tough heroine. Like Sarah J. Maas’s Celaena or Feyre, and Jodi Meadow’s Wil, she’s strong-willed, confident, bold, snarky, knows how to fight, and is willing to sacrifice her own life for what she believes is a greater good. I think it’s safe to say that if “love triangles” or “star-crossed lovers” haven’t bothered you in other popular YA fantasy, you’ll really enjoy this book!

Alyssa Raymond is a YA blogger for Coven Book Club and its sister site Spellbinding Books. She thanks Edelweiss and the publisher for providing her with an ARC of this book for review purposes; her opinions are her own. Please follow Spellbinding Books on Twitter and Tumblr. Thanks!


Books! Beautiful Books! – Spring 2015 YA is here!

YAY! YA SPRING IS HERE! Today I’m recommending An Ember in the Ashes, The Girl at Midnight, A Court of Thorns and Rosesand The Walls Around Us (pictured below) as my top picks so far for spring.

Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes (on the shelves 4/28) is great epic fantasy that explores familiar themes of tyranny, slavery, rebellion, magic, family loyalty, and forbidden love in a complex and unique way. Set in a brutal Rome-like world, the novel alternates between the perspectives of Elias, an elite soldier, and his mother’s slave, Laia. Elias unwillingly attends Blackcliff, where the Commander (his mother) trains him to be a Mask–an enforcer of the Martial empire’s laws. As he plans to desert the military, he’s chosen to compete for the Emperor’s throne, an opportunity that hasn’t come along in centuries. Laia is one of the conquered Scholar people. After her brother was arrested for helping the Scholar Resistance, she agreed to spy for the rebels as the Commander’s slave as long as they help save her brother. As Elias and Laia struggle to hide their true feelings toward the empire in order to survive, their lives intersect, further testing their beliefs and loyalties. I really hope there’s a sequel so that I can find out what happens next to Elias and Laia!

Melissa Grey’s The Girl at Midnight (on the shelves 4/28) is a perfect choice for readers of Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy and Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series. I immediately loved this book’s protagonist, seventeen-year-old Echo, a runaway pickpocket whose home is a hidden room in the New York Public Library. Like me, she’s a hoarder of books who’s guilty of Tsundoku–letting books pile up without reading them; she also steals treasures and uses magic to travel through the in-between from place to place. Echo has been adopted by the Avicen–an ancient race of feathered people with magical abilities who live beneath the city–and she is the only human who can see them. Her relationship with the Avicen puts her in danger of being caught by the dragon-like Drakharin. For centuries, the Avicen and the Drakharin have been enemies. According to legend, the only way to truly end their conflict is to find the very powerful Firebird. The Girl at Midnight switches between the perspectives of Echo and Dragon Prince Caius as they both seek the Firebird.

Throne of Glass fans will love Sarah J. Maas’ first book in a brand new series: A Court of Thorns and Roses (on the shelves 5/5). Inspired by Beauty and the Beast mixed with faery lore, this series features another strong heroine: nineteen-year-old huntress Feyre. After she kills a wolf in the woods, a beastly creature demands retribution by taking her to a faraway magical land inhabited by the Fae. When her captor transforms into the immortally beautiful Faery Tamlin, Feyre can’t help falling for him.

Nova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us (on the shelves 3/24) is a creepy supernatural tale, combining prison drama and dance rivalry — “Orange is the New Black meets Black Swan,” as some reviewers have called it. (Read my full recommendation here).

Over the next couple of months, I’ll recommend some more of the upcoming releases pictured below. Happy spring reading!

20560137203452021609682418190208180442772081498923399192218536362045459921393526176205231807274818332675183339992157031818584521186023412300940222836575195478562328165222896551230090111618162522718685228403982217185120649195187989832146909521469090225219511865778418713071229290922271872722718731224293502271873822460399187102091839862722465605Adobe Photoshop PDF22238184-1232455932349228223287163228382201800995017998543160711872291805022864849206985302147381118160600136380201766141617185496184847742253989418883256224940872289653823149128229295372271881022009384225613202271871018658071229991411805398418478083230159482148085422836562227988361839247622586972208603162283657622445886

Alyssa Raymond recommends new and upcoming releases in young adult fiction (and occasionally middle grade and adult) for Coven Book Club and its newly-launched sister site Spellbinding Books. She thanks Edelweiss, Netgalley, and the publishers for sending her ARCs and DRCs for review purposes. Please follow her on Tumblr and Twitter.