Holy shitcakes in the oven, THAT WAS SO GOOD. I have nothing but good words to say about a high fantasy with men and women with complex loyalties to a seemingly two-sided war. I have SO MUCH to say about the women, in particular, and the world of jinn and ghuls and a school of Spartanish-trained assassins. Just…omgah. So. Damn. Good.
AN EMBER IN THE ASHES
by Sabaa Tahir
Razorbill, April 2015
High fantasy, young adult
Rated: 4.5 / 5 cookies
Laia is a slave.
Elias is a soldier.
Neither is free.
Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.
It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.
But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.
There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.
All Good Things, All Good Things
Not gonna lie, this book took me FOREVER to finish reading. I think it was due to the fact that almost every other chapter brought about some sort of catastrophe for the main characters, and I was having none of that shit half the time. Hell, the minute the Trials began, I was so worried over a few characters that I had to make sure one of them survived into the next book (yes, spoilers, omg, but that character did, thank goodness). Not that that helped much, I was still glaring at the book from time to time because Tahir pretty much did everything she could to make something go wrong. And I won’t even talk about the Midsummer Night’s Dream-esque love triangle (square?) happening in the book. (I ALREADY HAVE A SHIP AND IT’S NOT HAPPENING, WHY.) Ugh, I shake my fist at you, Sabaa Tahir. Shake. My. Fist.
That being said, I have quickly forgiven her. It was only right, considering how great the book was, how vivid the world looked, and how awesome the characters were.
An Ember in the Ashes focuses on a dystopian fantasy society, where the Martials rule the land and the Scholars are designated slaves. There is a resistance that tries to go against this mold, but rebellion is an insurmountable task. After all, the Martials have the Masks, ruthless soldiers and assassins trained at the militarily renowned Blackcliff Academy. Pulling inspiration from Ancient Rome, the Martials are heavily disciplined, battle-hardened, and ultimately they hold all the weapons. It’s almost a lost cause already, but throw in the immortal, oracular Augurs and the supernatural powers of the jinn, and hell, the Scholars’ freedom really does look impossible.
The book focuses on two main character POVs, Laia and Elias. Where Laia is a Scholar born and bred–and, turns out, the daughter of an infamous Scholar rebel leader–Elias is a Martial soldier, arguably the best in his class at Blackcliff Academy. Both characters emerge from different backgrounds, yet in some ways, their struggles are very similar, and it’s in Blackcliff where their stories intertwine.
Now let me tell you about the two lovely POV characters.
Life is made of so many moments that mean nothing. Then one day, a single moment comes along to define every second that comes after. The moment Darin called out–that was such a moment. It was a test of courage, of strength. And I failed it.
Laia starts off as the sort of sheltered girl doted upon by her grandparents. She was largely an herbalist and a healer, helping her family with the modest work around the house. This all changed when the Mask came calling, and instead of taking a stand and fighting, Laia flees into the night. To her, running away is a sign of cowardice, and throughout the book she battles with the guilt of having escaped, of being unable to keep her brother Darin from being captured, of never holding a candle to her brave, Lioness mother. It’s pretty bleak thinking, and normally I have no patience for the type of hesitant character that Laia represents. But she pushes forth and stays alive. She’s not a combatant–evident in her Scholar background, where her kind are expressly forbidden to hold or even examine a weapon–but she’s got a spitfire personality when it counts. Give Laia a knife and she will use it. Provided the proper motivation, and there is no shortage of motivation for this seemingly timid girl.
The field of battle is my temple. The swordpoint is my priest. The dance of death is my prayer. The killing blow is my release. The mantra is all I’ve ever needed.
Now Elias. Elias is one hell of an emotionally charged character. He’s also my favorite by far. Well, second favorite, I suppose, if you count the secondary characters (but we’ll get to that in a bit). Elias has just as much of a tragic backstory as Laia. Abandoned by his mother in the middle of a desert, Elias is raised by Tribesmen until the Augurs bring him into Blackcliff at the age of six. From there, he undergoes the most grueling gladiator-like training imaginable, making it to the top of his class through sheer will, practice, and perseverance. The thing with Elias, however, is that he absolutely hates Blackcliff. The beginning of his chapter shows him trying to desert before his graduation ceremony, failing to do so due to his best friend’s diligence. When the Augurs arrive once more in Blackcliff, it becomes impossible to leave, and Elias finds himself competing in the Trials–a set of tests that would ultimately lead to the title of Emperor.
I could honestly gush a lot about Elias, but I will say this: he’s the type of character who has the potential to change the world, but refuses to cross certain lines at the risk of losing his soul. He faces several situations that test much of his emotional and physical strength, and by blood and bone, the young Mask has seen shit and still manages to survive anyway.
Now, while the two main POVs were definitely likable enough for me to read the entire book and enjoy it, I will say that the highlight is the fact that Tahir filled her story with the most capable women I’ve ever seen. The women were warriors, slaves, rebels, storytellers, oracles. Many of them were maimed and scarred in a fashion, and yet they all rose to the occasion, some to fight on one side of the Scholar-Martial conflict, others in search of better situations. If this review wasn’t already over a thousand words long, I’d have gone on and on about how awesome Izzi and Cook and Keris and Helene and Sana are. And those aren’t even the only women worth mentioning.
And as if that wasn’t enough, there are the jinn and ghuls and the Nightbringer to talk about. I won’t get into them because I’m sure they’ll become more prominent in the second book, but holy hell, adding them into the story took the cake. I have a weakness for jinn, and ghuls are scary as hell. I wanted to know more about the stories of the jinn, and I was not disappointed when they finally talked about the Nightbringer.
4.5 out of 5 cookies! Honestly, the book was great. I need the next book in my life. Especially because *spoilers* HELENE’S POV IS IN IT YAAAAAAAAY *end spoilers*.
This counts as #4 of the Flights of Fantasy Reading Challenge.