This new YA novel has the makings of another multi-book blockbuster like Harry Potter or Hunger Games, but it’s not derivative or formulaic. Sabaa Tahir makes beautiful use of her cultural background (the child of Pakistani immigrants in the Mojave Desert, an outsider who did not feel particularly brave growing up) and vivid imagination to create a world that is dominated by dark spirits and a powerful militaristic elite. The Martials (who remind me of the Spartans) have ruled ruthlessly for 500 years; they’ve enslaved the educated culture known as the Scholars (Athenians) and use a powerful army of “Masks” to hunt down and eliminate resistance. The Martial Empire is an oppressive totalitarian regime, the sort of place that destroys families and crushes the human spirit. Yet from amongst the Martials and the Scholars, two unlikely individuals emerge as sparks of humanity and, perhaps, an impetus for change.
Laia is a teenaged Scholar girl who lives with her older brother Darin and their grandparents. Laia’s parents had been part of the Resistance and were killed. Now Darin seems to be involved in some secret activity that draws the attention of the Masks to their home in the middle of the night. Laia suddenly and tragically finds herself alone in a hostile world but is determined to find and free Darin if he is alive. Laia sees herself as weak, cowardly, and unworthy of her martyred parents, but she digs deep inside to find unknown reserves of bravery and intelligence, and she volunteers for a dangerous mission for the Resistance in the hopes of ultimately saving her brother.
Elias could not be more different. He is a Mask in training at the Blackcliff Academy and nearing graduation. His family is the old and esteemed Gens Veturia, and his mother is the Commandant of Blackcliff. But we learn early on that Elias’ mother Keris abandoned him shortly after his birth and he was raised until the age of 6 by desert Tribesmen. Keris hates Elias and everyone knows it. She is a lethal, heartless, bloodthirsty tyrant who enjoys torturing her slaves and students who disappoint. Elias plans to run away from the academy to make a life in one of the free lands far from the Empire until an Augur — one of the “priests” who has lived forever, reads minds, and sees into the future — convinces him that his destiny and the freedom he seeks will only be obtained by staying at Blackcliff. Shortly afterward, the Augurs announce the opening of the Trials — a contest to determine the new Emperor. Elias and his friend Helene are two of the four students chosen to compete to the death to become Emperor and Blood Shrike (second in command).
Elias’ and Laia’s paths are linked, and at different points in the novel, the Augur Cain tells each that they are an “ember in the ashes,” some sort of important spark of hope in a deadly world. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to note that there seem to be some romantic sparks between the two as well, but it’s complicated. Laia also feels the feelings for fellow resistance member Keenan, and Elias and Helene have a friendship that may or may not be more than that. But the romantic portion of the novel takes a back seat to the thrilling story of political intrigue and subversive activity. The Trials are harrowing and involve a lot of death. Tahir has no qualms putting violent massacre and brutal torture in her story, which I think add to the horror and suspense of the tale. It’s not gratuitous, in my opinion, and certainly has been seen for real in our world. You can hear her discuss this in an interview with PRI. What is not so real is Tahir’s inclusion of ghuls, jinn, efrits and other spirits as a crucial piece of the story, and I think it really adds an important element to her storytelling. Our main characters have to fight their fears, and these fey creatures embody those fears in a real way.
While An Ember in the Ashes has a magical element to it, the story itself is about freedom, about facing your own fears in the face of evil, and hanging on to hope. Can you find it within you to do what is right for your soul no matter what happens to your body, even if you “lose” in the end? And the end of An Ember isn’t the end of the story. At least I hope not, because we are left with a cliffhanger and I need to know what happens! This was a great story and would appeal to teens and older.