Themes Explored: exile, fantasy, magic, slavery, political dynasties, family politics, father-daughter relations, prophesy, legacy, fate, longing, angst, military state, assassinations, romantic relations, espionage, destiny
Synopsis: 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 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. Elias wants be free of the tyranny he is being trained to enforce. He and Laia soon realize that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself. (Adapted from Goodreads)
Review: Ever pick up a book expecting it to be terrible and coming away pleasantly surprised? When I started An Ember in the Ashes I expected another Hunger Games inspired story. Thankfully, my misgivings did not reflect reality. The narrative, while not terrible original, presents the characters and action in an engaging manner. In some ways, this book is one of the better young adult entries I have read in a while. All the characters felt real and their interactions did not drip with indecisive angst. And the illusions to ancient Roman and Greek military culture added an intriguing element to the narrative.
The Empire swept in several generations ago and forced the native Scholars into virtual slavery. Citizens of a broken and conquered civilization, the Scholars exist on the fringes and earn next to nothing. Their lives are ruled through the fears of raids, imprisonment, or disappearing in the middle of the night. All the Scholars tremble at the thought of angering a Marshal. While The Resistance has pushed back for years, they never succeed in actual change. Rumors abound of Resistance fighters breaking people out of prison and helping them escape to the free lands. But any association with the Resistance is punishable by death and horrendous torture.
The Marshals keep control and strike fear into the heart of Scholars with the Masks, the most brutal fighters in the Empire’s army. Masks train from a young age to learn how to function as cold-hearted, efficient assassins. They help keep the Empire’s law and order alive in conquered lands and foster fear amongst the conquered people. Elias Veturius is about to graduate from the Mask training academy and join the elite fighting force charged with inflicted pain on misbehaving Scholars. Laia is a Scholar who was leading a simple life learning the art of healing. That is until a nighttime Mask raid that captured her brother and charged him with colluding with the Resistance. With time running out, Laia has one choice left, find the Resistance and convince them to rescue her brother.
Sabaa Tahir excellently depicts the viciousness of the Empire, towards its citizens and the conquered countries. The Empire prefers to slaughter Scholar men and boys in front of the women, this builds fear. And at Blackcliff, the Mask training school, students are routinely victimized. Deserts are whipped to death in front of the entire student body. All students are subjected to psychological terror. Elias decides to desert because the sheer evil of the Empire sickens him. While a member of the Empire’s most elite class, Elias is neither free nor safe. In some regards he and his ilk are just as enslaved as the Scholars. His relationship with fellow mask Helene is a great example. In a different book, Helene’s attraction to Elias would have come across as nothing more than teenage angst. It still is, but, in this society where emotion is regulated and subjected, her emotion seems more like rebellion than anything else. In a world where emotion is outlawed, the narrative allows to show how much power emotions have over people.
Elias is probably the most intriguing character in the novel. His mother is one of the most ruthless Masks in the history of the Empire and considers Elias as her greatest mistake. He has no idea about the identity of his father. Instead of raise a child in shame, Elias was shipped off to grow up among the Tribesman. As such, he has more loyalty to the Tribes than the Empire. He is an interesting mix of courage and self-doubt. Despite being trained to become a cold hearted assassin, Elias maintains a strong sense of right and wrong. This leads to his conflict with the actions of the Empire. He is one of the most complex male characters to emerge from young adult fiction in recent years. I am interested to see where Tahir takes his character in future installments.
Laia is a rather weaker character when compared to Elias. No do not get me wrong, she has plenty of great traits. She is strong, determined, and devoted to saving her only brother. And she, naturally, falls in love with the dashing attractive Elias. Since this is a young adult novel, Laia obviously has to fall in love with two radically different guys. Keenan is a hot tempered resistance fighter with a cutting wit. His relationship with Laia seems to exist only as a shallow plot device, not an actual relationship. Keenan barely appears throughout the narrative and only shows up when it is most conducive to highlight Laia’s inner turmoil. No wonder Elias comes across as the stronger character, he has more page time.
Tahir does an excellent job with world building. The Masks earned their name due to a silver mask that permanently adheres to their face. All the Scholar’s live in barely genteel squalor and barely manage to keep their hatred of the Empire from bubbling to the surface. Elias dances with a tribes woman and Tahir manages to create an entire society in a few paragraphs. World building is definitely the best part of the novel. I am quite excited for the next installment.
An Ember in the Ashes, Razorbill, 2015, ISBN 9781595148032