An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir review

emberintheashes_jkt_5-1What if you were the spark that could ignite a revolution?

For years Laia has lived in fear. Fear of the Empire, fear of the Martials, fear of truly living at all. Born as a Scholar, she’s never had much of a choice.

For Elias it’s the opposite. He has seen too much on his path to becoming a Mask, one of the Empire’s elite soldiers. With the Masks’ help the Empire has conquered a continent and enslaved thousands, all in the name of power.

When Laia’s brother is taken she must force herself to help the Resistance, the only people who have a chance of saving him. She must spy on the Commandant, ruthless overseer of Blackcliff Academy. Blackcliff is the training ground for Masks and the very place that Elias is planning to escape. If he succeeds, he will be named deserter. If found, the punishment will be death.

But once Laia and Elias meet, they will find that their destinies are intertwined and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself. In the ashes of a broken world one person can make a difference. One voice in the dark can be heard. The price of freedom is always high and this time that price might demand everything, even life itself.

This book came accompanied by a huge fanfare. Billed as ‘the next Hunger Games‘, it wasn’t even on sale in shops before it was reported that a big film deal had been signed with Paramount. Lucky as I was to receive an ARC, I couldn’t quite bring myself to read it at first, wary that it wouldn’t live up to the hype, or that I would judge it unfairly because of the spotlight it was under. Putting all that aside, when I settled down and got stuck in, I found myself in for a treat of pure escapism. There is so much to say about this book. Here are just five things that made it a memorable read for me:

A Roman Empire-esque fantasy setting…

I loved the setting of this book, and I think the author was quite clever in choosing it. Because the idea of ‘the Roman Empire’ is so firmly imprinted in our imaginations, by evoking this flavour it’s almost as if half of the world building was done for her. The rest she fills in with her own brushstrokes that make this feel like its own distinct fantasy world, in which Middle Eastern spirits like effrits and djins lurk in the shadows, nomadic Tribesmen roam the desert telling powerful tales, and Martial soldiers are equipped with silver masks that blend with their faces and Teluman blades that can slice through armour. It felt vaguely familiar yet refreshingly new at the same time, with a sense of magic and mystery that pulled me in.

The stakes are high

The story was not non-stop action and gripped me right from word go, opening with a Martial raid on our heroine Laia’s Scholar family. Life as she knows it crumbles before her eyes, setting in motion the chain of events that sweeps her onwards through the narrative. If you ever think you’re having a bad day, spare a thought for Laia. Your whole family has been wiped out, apart from your brother, who’s been thrown into jail, where he will almost certainly be tortured to death, and your only hope for getting him out is to work for the Resistance, who send you on a spy mission into a military school as a slave for the notoriously brutal Commandant, who has a penchant for gouging slave girls’ eyes out and carving her initials into their chests. Yeah, you’ve had better. The stakes are most definitely high, not just for Laia but for all the characters, in an oppressive regime where everyone’s worst fear is that putting a foot wrong will lead to dire consequences for their loved ones. Some reviewers have criticised the amount of violence and brutality, in particular the constant threat of sexual violence, but I thought it befitted the context of a repressive regime. As well as maintaining the tension throughout Tahir weaves in some truly poignant moments, with beautiful writing in places. This counterpoint to all the violence gave the book substance and made me care more what happened to the characters.

Strong female presence

Alternating POVs is a familiar device in YA, and here it is executed particularly well. Both Elias’s and Laia’s voices felt strong, distinct and convincing. I’d love to know exactly how Tahir got herself into the mindset of a 20-year-old boy and wrote those scenes with Helene and Laia from a male perspective. Both lead characters have a really strong story arc. Laia starts out afraid and powerless, later finding her voice and her own brand of courage, while Elias’s quest for freedom culminates in his realisation of the true meaning of the word. It was impressive that Tahir didn’t favour either of the main characters over the other, and that there were other really strong characters to boot. Female characters have a particularly strong presence: determined little Izzi, the slave girl that Laia befriends in Blackcliff, Elias’s badass best friend Helene, and the terrifyingly brutal Commandant, who, as far as baddies go, is about as mean as they come. She would poke your eye out with a stick just for sneezing. Although in her case I was slightly disappointed that she really had no redeeming features – memorable as she was, she did feel one-dimensional and I would have liked to have learned more about her back story.

Where there’s love, there’s hope

Nothing is straightforward for these characters and the same goes for love, with an unresolved love square threading its way through the narrative. I think Tahir’s decision not to let any of the love angles pull focus from the main storyline was a good one. Equally, the fact that there were these romance threads running through gave a sense of hope – that even in the darkest circumstances there is still the potential for love. But it was nice to see romance not taking centre stage for a change. I liked that she explored the ambiguity of feelings in boy-girl friendships through Helene and Elias, and that Laia questions whether any of her feelings towards Elias and resistance fighter Keenan are real or born of the moment.

My god, that ending!

If you love a good twist at the end of a story, you won’t be disappointed. There were some truly heart-stopping moments that really got me! Although the ending is to a large extent satisfying, there were definitely a few seeds planted that led me to hope for more. There has been a lot of speculation about whether there will be a sequel (Tahir herself has said in several interviews that she has already mapped out her characters’ lives and would like there to be one). If there is, there is plenty of mileage left in the story, and I would definitely want to read on and find out what happens next. I wouldn’t say this is a wildly original book but it does draw on different things and mix them up in ways that I hadn’t seen before. As a debut it is really well achieved and shows Tahir’s potential to grow as a writer and produce even better things.

Thank you to Harper Collins for the ARC in exchange for an honest review, and sorry it took me a while!

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