I’m slowly working my way through my library’s fantasy collections on Overdrive, which is how I found An Ember in the Ashes, the first book of Sabaa Tahir’s YA fantasy series. My reading goals this year are to a) not buy books (only bought one so far this year!); and b) read more female fantasy writers (I made it to July without reading any dudes, and I read more than I usually do!) So, as I quite enjoy YA fantasy, I added this one to my reading list and figured I’d give it a whirl. It’s a bonus that Tahir is Pakistani-American; I’m delighted to read more underrepresented authors as well.
The premise of the first book seems pretty typical of YA fantasy: It alternates between two main character POVs.
Laia, whose people have been subjugated for centuries, just wants a peaceful existence. But her brother is captured by the Empire for his knowledge of secret weaponry, and their grandparents are murdered by the elite warriors of the Empire, the Masks. Laia manages to escape with her life, but cannot get over her guilt that she ran when her loved ones needed her. So she goes to the Resistance–the group her mother used to lead before her death when Laia was a child–and begs them to free her brother from prison. In return, Laia is sent to spy on Blackcliff Academy, where Masks are trained.
Elias Veturius is almost finished with his training at Blackcliff; almost a Mask. But he can’t stop questioning the Empire, and he’s planning to flee as soon as he graduates. Before he gets the chance to do so, he, his best friend Helene, and two other trainee Masks are chosen to compete in the Trials… which chooses the new Emperor.
N.B. I will discuss the series as a whole here but mostly focus on the first, with a spoilery section labelled at the end. I will make some mention of overall character arcs and storylines without giving too much away, but if you want absolutely no hints of what’s to come, then maybe this isn’t the review for you.
Now, I purposefully left some details out of this premise, because at first glance, the worldbuilding is… lacking. The evil empire is called the Martials, and everything just screams ‘ripoff of the Roman Empire’. Even worse, the subjugated people are ‘Scholars’. As if a whole civilization called themselves Scholars. SIGH. There are other nations too–Tribesmen, Mariners, etc. (Also later on there are barbarians that threaten the Empire, but at least they’re not just called Barbarians.) In the Empire there are Augurs, Mercators, Plebeians, Illustrians… lots of things you’d find in Ancient Rome. (I guess at least it’s not the Plebs and the Patricians, but maybe that would have been better?) When you move past the naming problems, though, there’s actually a lot more to it: there’s a magical/mythical background with djinns and other sprites that become more important as the series progresses–this is much more interesting and well-built. Actually, the first book is relatively magic-free, which I quite like.
The biggest strength of the book is that Tahir is great at creating her characters, making you care about them, and adding lots of conflict. In the first book I found Elias’ storyline much more interesting. The inherent conflict of hating the empire and having to fight to win a contest to become the next emperor is great as well. Elias has no desire to be emperor, but he knows his BFF Helene would be fantastic, and the other two contestants would be terrible, so he’s in it to (help Helene) win. The perk is that if Elias comes second, he can become Helene’s second-in-command, and he hopes to convince her to set him free. But he and Helene don’t always see eye-to-eye on the Empire, so even though they’re working together, there are numerous conflicts that rise up between them.
Laia has a pretty typical ‘not cut out for this but going to try her darndest’ storyline in the first book. I do appreciate that Tahir had the bravery to make Laia pretty unimpressive in the start. Even throughout this first book, she survives mostly through help from others. This is key because Laia grows and evolves throughout the books; her strength is in the fact that she keeps going even when she’s terrified and in far over her head, and also that she is inspired to fight for the people she loves.
There’s a fair amount of YA-style romance too and love-polygons, but it’s done well (especially in the later books). I never turn up my nose at a (well-written) love-polygon! More importantly, there’s friendship here, and that often takes precedence over romance. Laia meets a very sweet girl named Izzi whom she bonds with, and Elias and Helene’s friendship is a driving force.
I also like the way family is dealt with. Laia throws everything into saving her brother, and later on Helene’s family relationships are used to great effect. But more importantly, family is complicated in these books. This is best represented through the main baddie of the series: Keris Veturia, Elias’ mother, the Commandant of Blackcliff, and a serious boss-ass bitch. The spectre of Laia’s mother, who formed the Scholar Resistance, looms large in the series as well–another mother whose primary traits are less than maternal.
Wonderfully, there is a range of female characters presented, and in many ways, Laia and Helene are excellent foils for each other. Laia is soft where Helene is hard–and Laia has to harden, while holes are poked in Helene’s shell. But more importantly, neither is set up as an ideal that the other needs to strive for. They are two women who fight for what they believe is right, for the people they love, and neither one is objectively better than the other. Helene envies Laia’s typical femininity while Laia envies Helene’s strength and skill. They change and evolve because they are put under pressure, but both are given room to be less than perfect.
Other books–minor SPOILERS ahead!
I was devastated to finish the third book, thinking it was the end, only to find out that there’s another–and it won’t be published for a while yet! I was really enjoying reading them all in a rush, immersing myself in the world (crappily named though it is) and the characters. However, the plus is that there’s another to enjoy at another time!
One of the perks of the sequels is that Helene is made into a POV character. Her storyline is interesting and she might be my favourite character (though I certainly don’t dislike either Elias or Laia). Elias’ storyline also takes a very different turn than expected, and I’m really excited to see how it will be resolved. Laia’s in many ways is the most typical, the ‘young woman turned leader/inspiration to her people’ storyline… but it works. Laia doesn’t seek it out or actively reject it; she loves her people and wants them to be safe, but she has to focus on other developments.
Magic becomes more important as the novels progress and as the backstory is revealed, and centers primarily around Elias. Although Helene and Laia develop particular ‘powers’ as well, I really liked how this was done–their powers bring out certain elements of their characters, either revealing more of who they are (Laia) or rather incongruous to the way they present themselves (Helene). I never felt like magic was the focus, however, even as more and more of the backstory was revealed. The characters were always the most important part–the heart of Tahir’s novels.
An Ember in the Ashes=And So It Begins! (first in the series)
A Torch Against the Night=Underrepresented (Tahir is a Pakistani-American female author)
The Reaper at the Gates=So Shiny! (published June 2018).