An Ember in the Ashes: Sabaa Tahir

Happy New Year!

I’ve actually already read this book once and never got around to writing a review, so here’s the review of my re-read from a few days ago. Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes was raved about all of 2015, and the sequel, A Torch Against the Night (which I’m currently in the process of reading!!) has been equally acclaimed. I initially got my hands on AEITA a few months after it had been released, and I’m so glad that I got around to reading this book.

I’m going to start off by saying that I was really glad to see a desi author out there, gaining popularity. I’ve tried reading books by other desi authors, like Jhumpa Lahiri or, you know, that type, but I’ve never really been interested because all their books feature South Asian protagonists in India, or in America, dealing with finding their identity as either an Indian or American or something in between. I don’t like those types of books because I can’t relate to the characters. Also, I always felt a little kitschy reading about India. I guess I can’t explain it. Anyways, I digress; the thing I enjoyed is that the main cast features many Middle Eastern and otherwise brown characters, but since the world that we’re exploring is entirely different from Earth, their lives aren’t those of typical desis. They have entirely different backstories, like being a Scholar, being a Martial, etc. It makes things interesting.

On to the book. The thing that I liked is that the plot is fairly linear, which is good because there’s so much going on that I need the story to go from point A to point B. Even though AEITA isn’t much longer than your average YA novel, it is jam-packed with background for not only each character, but the entire world. You learn about the storytelling, peaceful Scholars being oppressed by the militaristic Martials,  their steel no match against the Tellurian scims of the Martial’s dreaded elite soldiers. You read about Blackcliff Academy and how they train their Masks, the terrifying killing machines that can cut down fifteen people without blinking. You read about the tensions splitting the city of Serra, the Martial Empire, and you discover that Laia and Elias are at the center of these troubles.

There are a lot of really strong female characters. Laia, of course, is this picture of ferocity. It’s cool that she grew from this kind of fragile, nervous wreck into the strong woman of single-minded determination that infiltrates the Commandment’s home and suffers unspeakable torture in order to spy for the Rebellion. She proves to be incredibly brave, which surprises many of the Rebel fighters.
There are two other characters that I really want to expand on, though: Izzi and Helene. I think that they were the most intriguing of the cast. Izzi has been working for the Commandment for most of her life and has the missing eye to prove it– how has she survived for so long? Though she’s constantly beaten by the Commandment, her dignity torn away, she’s still really sweet and earnest. I’d love to see a standalone novella retelling her tale. And then Helene, the only female student of Blackcliff Academy and perhaps the strongest of them all, save Elias, who has to prove to all of society that even though she’s a girl, she can kick as much and perhaps more ass than the rest of her peers. Helene is haunted by another student, Marcus Farrar, a cruel young man that constantly leers at her body and threatens rape more than once. How she stands it, I don’t know– especially since she’s disadvantaged when it comes to Marcus. For reasons unknown, relating to the immortal and godlike Augurs, she can’t murder him.

Rape is something common enough in this society that it provides an undercurrent of fear for many of the female characters. Masks are taught to pillage and rape. Servants fear being raped by Blackcliff students. It’s a terrible place to live, and I’m surprised that Ms. Tahir would note this down– because usually, in YA fiction, you see authors talking about similar environments but only encompassing brutality such as being beaten to death, robbed, etc. Rape is a crime that is hardly mentioned in the YA world, but I think that this is changing quickly. Just something interesting to note.

The male characters in this book are also really interesting. Elias Venturius, our protagonist, is Blackcliff’s finest student and son of the Commandment herself. Unlike his mother, he hates his life. He hates torturing people and he wants to desert, find freedom elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like that’s going to be the case as the plot progresses. I like Elias because he’s pretty reasonable as a character, and he seems like a genuinely good person that is stuck in an awful situation. The feelings that he and Laia hold for each other are expanded upon in internal monologue, and it’s interesting to see how he worries about the golden-eyed slave at the mercy of his mother, how he fights for her– not because he’s in love with her or anything, but because he feels guilty for ruining so many lives and not saving a single one in the process.

I think that the character I dislike the most is Keenan. He’s a rebel fighter, characterized by his red hair and grouchiness, and that’s exactly what makes him a bit irritating. Not his hair. His grouchiness. It’s explained that Keenan lost almost everyone when he was young– that he has been fighting with the rebels for a long time now– but still. Everyone in this novel has lost someone. That doesn’t give you an excuse to be a jackass, Keenan.
The villains in this book are pretty curious. There’s the Commandment, obviously. What happened to make her such a scary person? Why is she so devoid of feeling anything but hatred? Her history, as much as we know of it, is sad: pregnant by a man who might have tried to kill her, she gave birth to Elias and left him to a nearby tribe. Upon returning home, her father, who later adores Elias, deems her a slut and a streetwalker and it seems that all she ever wanted to do back then was to make him proud. That never happened. Is the Commandment a victim of time? Still, the things she does in the story are unforgivable. There’s no way for her to redeem herself now. The Nightbringer, king of the Jinn, makes the occasional appearance. I don’t know enough about him to make any judgement calls, but he seems like another character that’s fallen victim to his own tragedies. Then there’s Mazen, leader of the Rebellion and the man who betrays Laia. Ms. Tahir created an extremist character in Mazen, someone willing to cross every line in order to do what he thinks is right. Unfortunately, there are some lines that should not ever be crossed.

I really liked this book, this world, and its characters. It’s something that I would recommend to people who enjoy little details and nuances in their stories, those that are rich with history. I’m in the middle of A Torch Against the Night and looking forward to the ending, though it’s definitely one of those nail-biter novels, but more on that later. Happy reading!

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