An Ember in the Ashes, Sabaa Tahir

Friday, February 02, 2018

I've been a huge fan of fantasy novels since at least fifth grade. That Christmas I was gifted a box set of the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, and by the time I went back to school after winter break I had read all The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe twice. I devoured the Xanth series by Piers Anthony, battled the forces of Darkness with the elves in the Shannara Chronicles, and sailed the oceans of Earthsea (rest in power, Ms. LeGuin). As such, any new fantasy book I read has a pretty high bar to cross; it's got to take me on a fantastical journey I've never been on before, or take a tried and true fantasy story and turn it on its head. Such was the case with An Ember in the Ashes, the first book in the Ember in the Ashes series by Sabaa Tahir.
seven of them, and

The story has many common fantasy elements. A poor girl with untapped magic, the son of a noble house who wants to escape from the expectations placed on him, a war for the soul of the empire-your typical fantasy stuff. What's different is the setting. The book is set in a fictional place that is very much like the Middle East-less unicorns and satyrs, more ifrits and jinns. The first book follows two main characters; Laia, a Scholar, and Elias, a Martial Mask in training. The Scholars are a race of people who once ruled much of this fictional world; a people of art and culture and learning. A couple of generations ago, they were invaded by the war-like Martials, who forced them into ghettos and made reading and writing by Scholars illegal. They live in continual fear of the Masks, a group of highly trained Martial assassins who maintain strict control over the Scholars through brutal violence and a complete lack of compassion or empathy.

When Laia's brother is arrested, she goes undercover as a slave in the school where Martials are trained to gather intel for a resistance group who has promised to rescue him. Elias is about to graduate from the school a full-fledged Mask, but he has plans to run away to avoid becoming the souless, violent monster most Masks are. Laia and Elias meet, and their plans become embroiled in even bigger plans the universe seems to have in store for them.

The story is told from alternating perspectives, and the first person narration of both characters adds to the depth of their development. There is action aplenty, but the plot is rich and detailed enough to balance it out. There are some fairly graphic descriptions of violence done to individual people, so the weak-stomached might not enjoy it. It is a rare book that I think would appeal equally to male and female readers; there really is something for everybody (though I generally reject the idea of "boys" and "girls" books, I also live in the real world). As the beginning of a series, it does an admirable job of telling a complete story, and setting the reader up for the next installment. I broke my own "no-binge" rule for book series and started the second book immediately, An Ember in the Ashes was THAT good. I highly reccomend it for anyone who loves fantasy, YA or adult.

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