An Ember in the Ashes
by Sabaa Tahir
Told in alternating stories of two main characters on opposite sides, An Ember in the Ashes is a suspenseful exploration of the effects of violence on both the conquered and the conquerors. Set in a Rome-like fantasy world, the Scholars are a subjugated people under the rule of the Martials. Laia is a Scholar living with her brother and grandparents. When her brother is arrested on suspicion of being a member of the resistance, and her grandparents are killed violently by Martial soldiers, Laia runs away in fear. To atone for her cowardice, Laia sets out to save her brother, and goes undercover as a slave to the cruel and sadistic commander of the elite military academy Blackcliff.
Elias is a student at Blackcliff, training to become a Mask, the most elite of Martial soldiers. Although he has lived most of his life as a student under the harsh discipline at Blackcliff, Elias still sees things differently than his peers because he spent the first six years of his life outside the Martial society. Elias is determined to escape the violent society and his role as an enforcer as soon as he graduates. Then a visit from the Augurs — the Martial’s version of oracles — puts a difficult choice before Elias. But can he trust the prophecy, or is he being manipulated by the Augurs?
Sabaa Tahir was inspired to write An Ember in the Ashes during her time at the Washington Post’s foreign desk, when she was exposed to horrifying stories of the effects of violence on people around the world. An Ember in the Ashes is an exciting dystopian story that shows how a violent society affects everyone, from the slaves to the highest levels. Even the resistance is divided by the question of whether they have an obligation to help those of their people in need, or whether such aid detracts from their mission of fighting back against the Martials.
I had some minor credibility problems, and the plot development was occasionally awkward. I thought that the addition of supernatural characters like djinn was an unnecessary device that muddies the waters. The augurs were fine and really drive the plot in many ways, but the djinn and other spirits made it start to feel like everything was thrown in, including the kitchen sink.
This isn’t a subtle book: the message about the effects of violence is hammered pretty hard. However, as I write this in a Baltimore (and a nation) trying to figure out how to police our communities without unnecessary violence by police against the people they are supposed to protect, the message really resonates.
In spite of the minor issues, I found An Ember in the Ashes to be a thrilling and highly engaging plot-driven story with loads of teen appeal, especially for fans of dystopian fiction like the Hunger Games. I can understand why it’s been optioned for film already.
Elias is described as having golden-brown skin. The identity of Elias’ father is unknown, but it’s likely that his skin color came from his father, since his mother is described as having pale skin. Other than that, skin color doesn’t seem to play a role, although one of the more despicable characters is also described as having dark skin. The Martial empire appears to be generally diverse, with various ethnicities of people coming from the different conquered nations, although it’s not significant to the plot.
Although the empire appears to be fairly patriarchal, female characters play a significant role. Besides Laia, there’s Helene, who is also a student at Blackcliff and Elias’ best friend. Helen is one tough cookie, in some ways one of the toughest students there. In spite of that, though, she’s mostly relegated to the traditional female support role, and a subplot about an attraction leaves her acting “like a girl.” There’s also the female commander of Blackcliff, and several minor female characters including a cook who used to be an explosives expert.
The author is a woman of color.
Who would like this book?
Anyone who enjoys a thrilling, suspenseful plot-driven story, particularly fans of The Hunger Games and other dystopian fiction. In keeping with the theme, An Ember in the Ashes is fairly dark and violent, so sensitive readers may want to take a pass.
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