“An Ember in the Ashes” by Sabaa Tahir. This is a novel that I’ve been waiting an eternity to get to ever since I spotted it on the shelves and read the back cover. If you know me really well, I used to see fantasy as this cookie-cutter genre. I despised reading such novels because I always assumed that all it involved were kings, dwarves, elves, and dragons and such. And…yeah you can argue I wasn’t that far off.
But then last year I reviewed a certain novel that’s become a favorite of mine called “The Young Elites” by Marie Lu. And in case you haven’t read the review (not that you can’t via the link but still), you know how much I love it! 😀
So what’s the story of “An Ember in the Ashes”? Taking place in a fantasy world where the merciless and tyrannical Martial Empire is slowly taking over the continent, we follow two people who are at its mercy. Laia of Serra is a shy but determined backwater desert girl whose grandparents were killed and her brother Darin arrested by the Empire for treason by their nefarious Masks. Escaping from them and now in hiding from the silvery masked soldiers, Laia finds herself running into the Serran Resistance that wants to take back their country and rid themselves of the Empire forever. After pleading for their help, the Resistance decides to use her only after finding out she is the daughter of a famed rebel (her mother) called the Lioness.
The plan? For her to spy as a slave and be forced to serve the Commandant of Blackcliff Academy, the ruthless and sadistic headmistress of the Empire’s greatest military school.
The reason? Over the course of a month, Blackcliff is serving as the place where a mystical event called the Trials is being held to determine the aged Martial Emperor’s successor.
The problem? Among the contestants in the Trials is Elias Veturius, Blackcliff’s most powerfully empathetic soldier, and the disowned son of the demonic Commandant herself. Unlike her though, Elias wants to escape the Empire, Emperor or not. Soon both he and Laia realize that the future of the Empire and the world rests on their actions and how far they’d go to escape their fates. But the question is, how far would their ties stretch and break before destiny entwines their lives, and will they live to tell the tale?
Alright, credit where it is absolutely due: for a woman who grew up in a motel in the Mojave Desert and never wrote a novel before now, this is one hell of a way to start as an author. Good Lord is this book so goddamn good! I hadn’t read a fantasy book this amazing since I read Marie Lu’s “Young Elites” trilogy a year ago. And that’s saying so much given how I’ve praised her so much in the past, isn’t it?
So what makes “An Ember in the Ashes” such an epic, heart-pounding novel? What makes it stand out among fantasy epics such as “Lord of the Rings”, “The Young Elites” trilogy, “Harry Potter”, and countless other fantasy novels such as this? Well, the setting of it helps much.
Like I said before about cookie-cutter novels, I’ve felt like fantasy novels published have focused on trying to be like “Lord of the Rings” and classic epics. You know, by having the same creatures of that world such as elves, trolls, dwarves, dragons, wizards, etc. Not that their bad settings and there’s definite variation, but it can be considered very repetitive. Sabaa Tahir understood this as well, and much like Marie Lu with her fantasy trilogy, set her book in a different type of setting and a different era.
And this is a very amazing setting. Similar to the era of the Roman Empire and their expansion into the Middle East, the world of “An Ember in the Ashes” is a world where steel, imperialism, and desert lore clash in a bloody battle over land and the name of power. We have Masks of the Martial Empire fight against the Serran Resistance, against Tribesman of the Tribal Desert, and against Barbarians of the Borderlands in the north. We have mystical creatures such as wraiths, jinni, demons, Augurs, and Nightbringers, but they’re more in the background of the story between our two main protagonists.
Elias and Laia are two different people who don’t share much conversation in the first half of the novel, but shine in how similar their positions are. Elias lived his early days abandoned by his mother and living with Tribesman, until he was brought to Blackcliff and forced to forget compassion and empathy in the name of valor and war. No longer free, he hopes to survive the Trials and escape becoming Emperor.
Laia lived with Darin and her grandparents while her parents left them to live away from the pursuit of Masks. After the night she lost her grandparents and Darin to imprisonment, she is forced to forget compassion and dignity in the name of subordination and deceit.
Both are likable in one way or another, and the way they eventually work off each other is funny and heartfelt when they talk about their lives prior. Elias is reserved, but passionate. Pessimistic but hopeful. Calm but seething with defiance, and he holds every action he takes into high regard, especially with someone’s death. The same can be said about Laia, how she holds every action of hers in high regard, even though she’s more open and optimistic than Elias is outside his obedient façade.
This is great because while other stories like to focus more on the epic story the characters try to follow, the characters’ backstories and problems are the story. When Elias is angry we feel genuinely angry, when Laia feels helpless we feel helpless, and when both are determined and hopeful we feel the same way as well.
The other side characters are great as well. We have Izzi and Cook the kitchen slaves, Elias’s best friend and devoted Mask named Helene, the psychotic Blackcliff student Marcus, the handsome Resistance fighter Keenan, as well as countless others.
The way Sabaa Tahir writes this story, you sense a layer of poetry hidden between the lines. You can feel the paragraphs and sentences drip with cultural atmosphere and amazing imagery. The visuals are epic and enriched with a sense of wonder in this world. At the same time though, the harshness of the world and the fear of powerlessness lingers on every character whether they are elite Martials or poor Serrans. One of the beginning chapters for Elias has a (very intense) scene where he witnesses a ten year-old Blackcliff student be whipped and tortured amid a cheering crowd for desertion. And there’s another chapter where Laia is brought before the Commandant as a slave and is shown an entire wall of wanted posters dedicated to those she has murdered and tortured. And all to show how much she is dedicated to her job as a Mask and Blackcliff’s headmistress.
Speaking of which, the Commandant is the scariest mother in fiction!
My God, how do I best describe her? Well…imagine the evil stepmother from Cinderella if she were more violent and didn’t care who knew it.
Screw The Governor from “The Walking Dead”, this sadist and power-hungry woman is the real deal! She’s described as being so reserved, so calm and stern while having this sick pleasure in punishing her slaves, her students, and her son every moment she can. Like I said before there’s a scene where she’s beating a ten year-old to near-death and makes Blackcliff Academy watch.
Despite this though, her character is beyond amazingly creepy, the way even hearing her name send a chill down your spine and makes you uncomfortable whenever she enters the scene. Makes me wonder who would play her in a live-action movie?
Overall, Sabaa Tahir’s “An Ember in the Ashes” is a gritty, action-packed, and intense epic worthy of Marie Lu’s “Young Elites” trilogy and “Lord of the Rings” itself. The setting is adventurous, the dialogue enriched with culture, the villains creepily interesting, and the characters full of raw emotion. I hadn’t felt my heart go this fast in a long time, and all of it comes from me feeling every tear and every joy Elias and Laia have.
I cannot explain how much Sabaa Tahir is an experienced writer and author, especially with her first novel. Mrs. Tahir, if you’re reading this, let me tell you I love this book, and cannot wait for your next release!
If you come across this, give it a read and find yourself in an experience that can only be found in its upcoming sequel, “A Torch Against the Night”.
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