An Ember in the Ashes Review
In recent years, I realize I have bought few books without checking reviews first. It’s good practice I think to do the research before spending my hard earned money, but I admit I do miss some of the pleasure of going into a store and just buying a book because I think it sounds good. The other day I had a change of pace. Armed with a voucher I got as a gift, I went into my bookstore ready to buy just about anything, and my eyes fell on Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes. The description put me in a mind of a story full of intrigue, suspense and magic, and I was interested at once. Delving into the book, I found a very interesting world with a complex social structure and a plot with lots of potential and interesting characters.
The story is divided between the points of view of two characters, Elias and Laia who live in the Empire, an oppressive country which subjugates its citizens in various brutal, pervasive and insidious ways. Laia has already lost her parents and a sibling. They met their deaths while fighting against the Emperor in the resistance movement. At the beginning of the story, she is living fairly comfortably with what is left of her family until they are once more torn asunder when the Masks, the terrifying and deadly soldiers of the Empire come and arrest her brother Darin. Laia flees and is tormented after that by guilt at what she considers the cowardly act of running away and by the fear of what will happen to her brother who is likely being tortured in the deadly prisons of the Empire.
She seeks out the Resistance movement, and they give her a frightening task. In return for their help, she must act as a spy at Blackcliff Academy, the training institution for the fearful Masks themselves. Many other spies have died in the same situation as her, and Laia is terrified, but she agrees.
At the Academy, she crosses paths with Elias, a Mask but himself another victim of the terrible regime. Like many others, he was taken and pitilessly trained in the deadly military academy which produces the soldiers from a very young age. Elias is the best student in the academy and is just upon the verge of graduating. Unknown to anyone else, he is determined not to take on the legacy of the Masks. Despite the fact that if he is caught, it would mean certain death, he is determined to escape and be free, but circumstances work against him.
Sabaa Tahir created a very compelling story that I found very hard to put down. Both Elias and Laia are moving through a suspenseful plot which had me turning pages eagerly to find out what would happen next. Both of them are very well drawn. Laia is sometimes almost crippled by her fears, and as I read I could imagine that some readers might find her a bit weak and indecisive, but I think the story prevents her from falling into such a simplistic, dismissive description. For one thing, I find her terrors to be very believable. Her circumstances are fueled by trauma and living in almost constant fear for her life and that of her brother, and that understandably chips away at her strength. She is not being paranoid either. As she lives within the domain of her deadliest enemies and under the ruthless eye of the sociopathic Commandant who oversees it all, we are often made to fear for her life and wonder how she has the strength to keep on. That strength can be easy to overlook, but when we contemplate what she brings herself to do, we see that she is far more resilient than our first impressions might suggest. She changes as well, and I think Tahir manages to make her transformation believable as it is gradual and not a complete turnaround for the character. I don’t need all of my female characters to be strong and perfect, emotionally and physically. While there is room for those types, I would prefer some characters with varying levels of strength and who are well written and developed. I think Tahir manages this with Laia.
Elias is a very physical warrior type of character, and I found Tahir’s descriptions of him to be particularly well done, giving a strong sense of his appearance as well as the sometimes imposing, sometimes vulnerable presence of this character. The first person narratives of each of the character’s plot lines draw the reader well into their thinking, and I particularly enjoyed being in Elias’ head. I enjoyed both, but I think he was my favorite.
We long for Elias and Laia to meet early on in the story, and I don’t want to give too much away, but a romantic relationship begins to blossom between them. Like many young adult novels these days, this is complicated by other players among their circles. The love triangle theme is getting played out in YA books these days, but this book manages to skim away from this fairly well, and I hope that this continues, and it doesn’t become too much of what we’ve seen before.
Tahir has created a very interesting world with the Empire, and the various social groups struggling to survive and to come out on top. Since I didn’t do my research before I bought this, I had the rare occurrence (for me) of discovering that this book will be followed by a sequel. I wouldn’t be surprised if a trilogy might follow. At the end of this book at least, I was ready to read a lot more about the characters, and see more development of the foundations of the world they inhabit. For instance, magic plays an important part in the story. As part of a warrior’s tournament, Elias battles supernatural forces. Laia’s torment manifests in much more than just ordinary nightmares, and a greater evil than the Commandant seems to be lurking around. These magical aspects are very imaginative, but they sometimes feel a bit secondary to the main story. I assume it will be greatly developed in the next book and be a bit more cohesive to the plot.
Overall though I found this book to be one of the most fascinating I’ve read in a while. I found myself unable to put it down at certain points as Tahir drew me in and made me anxious and desperate to know what would happen with the characters next. I highly recommend this one to fantasy lovers.
The news came out recently that Paramount has optioned the film rights to the book, and I’d be quite happy to see this vivid world come to the screen. The only thing I wonder about is how the Masks will be portrayed. The soldiers are supposed to wear their masks all the time. Elias takes off his own in private though he’s not supposed to, and he wears it in public. Picturing the characters in my mind’s eye, it was strange trying to imagine them going about normally, expressing strong emotions, but mostly to have those expressions hidden behind masks. I found it difficult to imagine, and I think it would look strange and disconnected in a movie as well. Besides that I think this exciting adventure should easily translate into an action-filled, suspenseful movie. I can’t wait.
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