Book Review: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

I chose this as my “summer reading pick” at the school where I teach: each teacher shared the title of a book they were reading and invited students, parents, and community members to read the same book. In August, we will have an opportunity to convene and discuss the book. Because of that, I’m making this review a bit more detailed than my others. If you plan to read An Ember in the Ashes yourself, don’t read beyond the part marked “spoilers” because I plan to discuss elements from the end of the novel as well.

In the world Tahir has created, nearly everyone lives in fear of the Martial Empire. Blackcliff is a school that trains fighters by essentially kidnapping children and doing terrible things such as making them fight for survival or kill each other to stay alive. In essence, it weeds out those unwilling or unable to be ruthless. One of the two main characters, Elias, is one such soldier.

The other main character is named Laia. She is a girl who comes from a family of rebels, though their background is tainted with rumors. Her mother, now dead, was known as the Lioness. Her father, also dead, has a reputation of being a bit more soft in action, but still an important part of the resistance. Her sister has already joined their parents in death, but her brother, Darin, is still alive. At the beginning of the novel, he is captured in a raid, and their grandparents (now their legal guardians) are killed. To save her brother, Laia joins a group of rebels and agrees to a most dangerous spy mission: she becomes the slave of the Commandant in order to feed information to the rebels.

The story is told in alternating chapters, each in present tense first person point of view. At first, this format annoyed me a bit. I knew it would be a good story, as it was recommended by several readers whom I trust. I knew that Elias’s and Laia’s stories would come together. But in the first sets of chapters, each time I started “getting into” one of their stories, the chapter would end, and I’d be brought to the other character’s situation.

The stories grew together, as I knew they would, and the pace increased, so by the end the intercutting didn’t bother me at all. On a macro level, the story focuses on how martial law is built and what it does to people. Even at Blackcliff, those carrying out orders do so out of fear. No one seems happy, and several characters remember the deaths of those they killed. On a micro level, the novel examines several characters as they confront what they think they are and learn what actually motivates and inspires them.

I like the nods to different historical and cultural traditions. The most regal of characters are named in ways that nod to the Romans: Veturius, Aquilla, Marcus Antonius, which helps to remind the reader of the more gruesome elements of the Roman Empire. The most prominent weapon is a scim, a variation on the scimitar. The strongest of the students at Blackcliff become masks, wearing a silver mask that literally fuses to their skin and helps create their dehumanization in a visual way: as proven in the story, they will kill family members if ordered to. There are also fantasy elements woven in, including ghuls, wraiths, jinn, efrits, fey. And then there are the Augurs, a group of human-like beings with the ability to read minds (sort of), reminding me in some ways of the oracles of old.

The Augurs are ready to declare a new emperor, as the line of the current emperor is ready to end without an heir. They orchestrate a series of trials, and four of the most ruthless students are chosen to content to become emperor.

(At this point, there are be spoilers.)

(Seriously, only read if you want the ending spoiled.)

(Even at just over 400 pages, it’s a fast read!)

Among the competitors are Elias and his best friend (and fellow Mask) Helene. The four trials pit them against each other and test them in all ways, but it seems they are in a loaded game, with many parties pulling strings that work against them. The novel sets up for a sequel, opening many story lines but answering few of them. Things I’m left wondering about:

What is the actual truth about Laia’s parents? There are rumors of treachery among the rebels, which are now split into two factions. What role(s), if any, did her parents play in all this? What about her sister?

One of my favorite characters is Spiro Teluman. He is the master blacksmith/weaponsmith who Darin interacted with before he was caught with drawings of very powerful weapons (which is the reason he was thrown in prison and faces eventual death). He takes a liking to Laia immediately and recognizes the connection to the rest of her family and her potential role in leading the resistance. I look forward to seeing how he factors into the equation and what else he can teach Laia about her past.

There are two characters Laia meets as she’s pretending to be a slave: Cook (slaves have no names) and Izzi (she revealed her name after a while). At the end of the story, Laia gives Izzi her one ticket to escape and hopes she’ll use it wisely. Cook, who at the end of the novel helps to orchestrate a series of explosions to help Laia free Elias from execution, reveals that she has a past with the rebels, including with Laia’s parents. She refuses to reveal further details to Laia, but the reader knows there’s a story there, and I look forward to learning what it is.

Then, there is the Elias-Keenan love triangle typical of the YA genre. In her interactions at Blackcliff, Laia and Elias kindle a bit of a romance: he saves her from rape and then risks his life to save hers. Laia initiates a kiss with him, but he’s got too many problems (including the fact that Helene is in love with him) to truly focus on a relationship. Then there’s Keenan. He’s a member of the rebels and helped set Laia up in her position as a spy/slave. We learn at the end of the novel that what started out as pure business has become personal, and try as he might, he cannot push Laia out of his mind. But at the end of the novel, Laia escapes with Elias, making him promise to save her brother; Izzi takes Laia’s way out of town to go meet Keenan.

And finally, Elias. At the end, he reminds me a bit of John Proctor from The Crucible. Throughout the novel, the Augurs have been promising Elias that if he cooperates in the trials, he will eventually find freedom. It’s all he wants: at the start of the novel, he was plotting his own escape from the life of a Mask, a decision that could have cost him his life. During the fourth trial, he learns that to “win,” he has to kill Laia. If he does so, he will become Emperor. He decides that “freedom” in this case is his decision not to kill her—to take his life in his own hands and not allow the martial way of life to control him. But even as he escapes with Laia, he realizes that even though he now has mental and physical freedom, it will come at a high cost, as the road ahead is full of turmoil.

I especially enjoyed the fact that no one in the novel is truly happy. I know that sounds awful. But it’s somewhat true to history. In looking at rebellions like the American Revolution, both sides were corrupt. As much as American history likes to paint the colonials as pure freedom lovers, there was a wide spectrum of behavior there—and this is reflected in the rebels of Ember in the Ashes. While some are valiant and true, there are also those willing to abuse their growing power. But on the other hand, there is the well-oiled machine of Blackcliff and the Masks it trains. While the government it creates works efficiently, it is a behemoth of a system with its own major flaws, reminding me of the Roman Empire and even the system in place in our own government that limits the types of people who can come into power.

 

Augur