Breakout author Sabaa Tahir has been in book news quite a bit over the last few months. I first read about her when PRI successfully baited me into clicking on their headline, “Why ‘An Ember in the Ashes’ could launch Sabaa Tahir into JK Rowling territory.” I read the review and pre-ordered the book immediately thereafter, but definitely not because the article compares this new author to JK Rowling, Suzanne Collins, and George RR Martin himself. Actually, those comparisons rather turned me off, but I understood that the writer was trying to help readers immediately grasp the tone of An Ember in the Ashes, so I forged ahead anyway.
Why did I order it? Well, I was looking for exactly what I’m always looking for: a YA fantasy with a cohesive world and strong characters who actually grow and change. I also think it’s incredibly important to support diverse voices in books, and if I have the spare scratch, I’m going to throw it at diverse authors as often as I can. Put these two together and, heck yeah I’m going to pre-order this book!
What’s this book about, though? Here’s a mini, spoiler-free synopsis:
Teenage Laia is a Scholar, and generations ago the Scholars were conquered by the Martials. Now the Scholars live under strict Martial rule, and yes—the Martials live up to their name. Those Scholars who aren’t slaves are subjugated and repressed; Scholar death by Martial assassins known as Masks is a part of everyday life. In fact, Laia’s parents were killed by a Mask, and now she lives with her grandparents and brother in the Scholar quarter of the city. And then, to make matters even worse, her home is raided, her grandparents killed by a Mask, and her brother Daren taken into custody. Laia is left bereft with only one hope of help to rescue her brother: the infamous Scholar Resistance. But can they be trusted? And even if they can, what will Laia have to do to earn their help?
Elias is a Mask. Since he was taken from his desert nomad foster family at a young age, he’s been trained at the prestigious Blackcliff Academy, where only the strongest, sharpest, most loyal, most ruthless, most programmed children live to adulthood. Fortunately, Elias is strong enough and sharp enough to cover up the fact that his loyalty is nonexistent and he’s far from programmed. In a very short amount of time, Elias will graduate as a fully fledged Mask, at which time he’ll finally make his escape and seek out a life of his own where he doesn’t have to choose between killing innocents and being killed himself. And then, to make matters complicated, Elias is pulled aside by one of the mysterious, immortal beings known as Augurs, who tells him that running from his destiny will only ensure he lives a life of further carnage, and only be facing it can he truly be free. But can the Augur really be trusted? And even if he can, what will Elias have to do to earn his freedom?
So, there you have it: our two protagonists. Tahir weaves her tale back and forth, chapter by chapter told through alternating first-person perspective, showing readers the world through Laia’s eyes and then through Elias’. The pieces of the plot come together slowly, but tension borne of life-and-death situations reels the reader along right from the get-go. Both Elias and Laia are living in a high-stakes world where cruelty and betrayal is more common—and more reliable—than safety and trust.
I wasn’t the only WWAC writer whose attention was caught by An Ember in the Ashes. Back in May’s “Reading Diaries,” both Vernieda and I mentioned the book. At the time, I had just started reading it, and Vernieda had finished it with mixed feelings. After I devoured the book, we chatted a bit about it and found that we had pretty different takes.
So, why present you with just one opinion when you could have two? Read on, but beware: our opinions come with spoilers.
An Ember in the Ashes is a well put together book. I’ve always liked interlocking plotlines, and I thought the novel did that well. But at the same time, it was almost too well put together, if that makes sense. Rather than getting lost in the story, I kept getting distracted by the authorial craft.
This shows most clearly in the various love polygons. Of course, Laia will fall in love with Elias. Of course, Elias’s female best friend is in love with him. Of course, that best friend is lusted after by Elias’s mortal enemy. Of course, Laia and a member of the rebellion are attracted to each other because of course, our heroine must have a love interest who serves as a foil to Elias. Rather than feeling organic to the story, these elements read awkward and felt like they were added for the sake of “conflict”—especially if this supposed standalone sold enough copies to justify a sequel. Which it did.
As the female lead, Laia also frustrated me. I would have preferred a bolder heroine, who showed more recklessness resulting from her desperation to save her brother. She was too careful and a bit passive at times. Nothing wrong with that, but if the narrative required her cowardice to manifest as long as it did, then I would liked to see more internal angst and struggle over this. We’re told she feels bad, she’s not brave. We’re told she wishes she were like her mother. We’re told she feels bad she’s failing her brother.
We’re told a lot of things. I would have liked to being told less and shown more.
I appreciate the story Ember is telling. It’s a nuanced story about freedom and the various forms it takes, but I’m glad there’s going to be a sequel. I wasn’t sold on it being a standalone after that ending. In fact, considering how awkward I found the various romantic subplots to be, part of me wonders if those elements were added later in case a sequel was greenlit. We’ll never know and it ultimately does not matter, but I wonder.
I loved this book, I really did. I thought it was so very refreshing. As Vernieda mentions, I really enjoyed the interlocking plotlines and the author’s craft. I don’t really mind being pushed out of the book briefly over clever storytelling techniques, since I tend to overanalyze that anyway; what I hate is blatantly clumsy writing that no editor can (or did) save. Fortunately, I enjoyed Tahir’s writing quite a bit.
Laia is, I felt, very real. She’s scared of dying, she’s afraid to fight, she hates herself for being what she thinks of as weak. She runs to others for help and hopes they can solve her problems for her and make everything better. I can relate to her insecurities, and that prompts me to ask questions of myself. If I lived in those conditions, or in a war zone, could I really be strong? Could I stand up for what I believe in? Could I fight? I…don’t know. I think it would take a lot to make me get over fear and fight back. It does take a lot for Laia to do that—but she does it. Slowly, gradually, her resolve strengthens as she survives loss after atrocity after brutality. She doesn’t lose her fear, but she does gain strength. Whereas early in the book she relied on her brother’s imagined voice to grant her strength, she doesn’t need that later on. Instead, she relies on her own inner resolve. I loved that I could take this journey with her.
Elias, on the other hand, is a less relatable character. I still like him—his compassion, his strength, his desperation—but he doesn’t grow in the same way Laia does. Elias is in a position of power; even if he’s chained to that position until death, he still has power. One thing I felt Tahir did well was to show that people of all stations and power levels can still feel or be trapped—but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a responsibility to use their power with equity and compassion. Elias feels that responsibility, and he chafes against the orders that require him to commit brutal acts. His journey has to do with balancing commitment to those Masks he’s grown close to against his yearning for freedom from violence against the brutalities he’s asked to commit. Elias has to determine for himself how not to lose his soul while gaining his freedom. He does figure that out, but it’s a bloody, bloody path.
Now, close your eyes and scroll if you haven’t read the book, because big spoiler here. The thing that I liked the most about this book was the ending. Do Elias and Laia escape? Yes, well, maybe—we don’t quite know, but they probably make it out of the city. Does Laia succeed in rescuing her brother? Not yet. The ending is open; there are clearly more stories in the world that could be told, but An Ember in the Ashes is done.
For me, the story was not about rescuing Laia’s brother or about gaining Elias’ freedom, it was about self-discovery. Throughout the course of the book, Laia and Elias are forced to make choices, both good and bad, that teach them about what’s important to them. They learn not only what they care about (and it isn’t always what they thought it would be), but they also learn how far they’ll go to protect or attain those things. Having learned this, they set out into the wider world, and the story wraps.
I’m actually sad there’s going to be a sequel. I don’t think all books need to be trilogies, even though that seems to be standard practice nowadays. I’ll likely read it, but I’ll be holding my breath the entire time, hoping that it lives up to what I loved about Ember. What I’m really worried about, though, is the movie. Let’s not have another travesty like “The Dark is Rising,” shall we?
So there you have it. Two WWAC takes on An Ember in the Ashes. What was your take?