There’s nothing better than starting a book that you don’t know much about and don’t have any expectations for, only to discover that it’s really good and that there are two more out there and a final fourth in the works. Last week, I loaded a bunch of library books on my kindle to read on vacation and this one, Ember in the Ashes, caught my eye both because it was the first book in a fantasy series and it was by a woman of color, Sabaa Tahir.
This novel tells the story of Laia and Elias, two young people from very different worlds but whose lives will connect in powerful and complicated ways. Laia is a member of the Scholar people, an empire that once boasted the finest universities and libraries in the world but who were conquered over 500 years before by the Martial Empire. Now, as Laia notes, “Most of our people can’t tell a school from an armory.” When Laia was young, her father, mother, and older sister were part of the resistance but they were captured and killed. Laia and her brother, Darin, were hidden away and now live with her grandparents, Nan and Pop. Laia’s somewhat peaceful existence comes to an end when there is a raid by Empire soldiers; her brother is captured, her grandparents killed, and Laia is on the run—choked with guilt because she did not stay and fight (even though the result would have been her death.)
Elias, a member of the Martial people, is in his last year at the Blackcliff Military Academy, training to be one of the dreaded Masks, the Martial Empire’s elite fighting force. He and his best friend, Helene, are the top of their class and great things are expected from them. However, Elias has a secret that he has spent years hiding. He does not want to become a Mask; he plans to desert right after graduation and flee to a distant territory where he can live his life differently.
What happens to both these characters and how their lives intersect is part of the fun of this novel, which I devoured quickly. The backstories for both Laia and Elias are rich and complex and take place against the backdrop of larger shifting forces and a war that involves more than simply humans. Though this novel ends at a key moment (which is sometimes my pet peeve), this feels like a story that needs multiple books to tell versus a story that is being stretched painfully thin across multiple volumes. I am definitely going to seek out the rest of the series when I return home.