Book Review: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
Genre: YA Romantic Fantasy
Romance Heat Level: Banana Pepper (warm-ish), but definitely YA-appropriate.
It’s been a long time since I’ve found a book that I’ve read through without thinking: I have a million other things I need to be doing, so … I’ll go do them. I think Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games may have been the last book I read where that’s happened, and lo and behold, it happened again with An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir.
Such an enjoyable read, you guys! I could rave in generalities all day, but that will get me nowhere (nor you), so I’ll try to list numerically some things I really loved about this book. I always have a weather eye out for certain things in a well-done fantasy, among them, the following:
1.) World-Building: As a fantasy reader and writer, I seek out solid world-building patterns, the more unique or different from the bandwagon, the better. In any other genre, the world is mostly already built. History has already been written, civilization and social norms decided. If there is a monarch, or a president, or a dictator, or a prime minister, that person already holds his or her position, and dates are already assigned.
Creating an entire world with not only a new society, but multiple strata of societies, is a special gift, and I love finding those authors who nail it.
Tahir nails it in An Ember in the Ashes. She somehow manages the complex and very difficult balance between setting the stage and the world with a rich tapestry, (i.e. Blackcliff, the Scholars’ Quarter, the Tribes, and all the varying degrees among these people and their customs), while also homing in on the deeply complicated and internal struggles of the lead characters.
2.) An Umbridge-esque Villain: I’ve read many, many villains in many different types of literature, but few make me more angry than Rowling’s Professor Umbridge of the Harry Potter series. Rowling, whether knowingly or unknowingly, set a precedent (at least for me) of what a villain should look like. Not all villains will be as obviously evil as Rowling’s Lord Voldemort or as Tolkien’s Sauron, but every villain should have the ability to be able to be a good person–had they made different life choices–and then chose instead to follow the shadows.
The Commandant in An Ember in the Ashes makes an excellent Umbridge-esque villain. I hated her immediately–one of those visceral, seething kinds of hatred that comes when you watch someone carve an innocent person’s skin for the sheer joy of pain–but I connected with her at one point when Tahir shows just a bit of her background, the place where she’d made her choices, and in that forked road, I found myself. Our roads are different, but we come back to the same root. Any time I find a villain with whom I can connect at some point in their history, their villainy is more grievous and horrible than those who may cast a darker shade, but have no connection with me as a reader.
3.) At least one solid, inherent theme throughout: the theme of decisions and their far-reaching consequences. I truly admire this theme. In An Ember in the Ashes, Tahir gives us Augurs, characters who read minds, who cannot die, who decide the Trials. When they were first introduced, I was intrigued by the idea of them, but as the story continued to unroll, the Augurs became more complex.
See, when I make a decision, I base my choice on the circumstances before me and my own personal feelings regarding those circumstances. What would be best based on the facts at hand? But the Augurs not only already know those facts at hand, they also know the results of the decisions a person will make, and then the results from those other results, and so on. First, what a mind-blowing responsibility to bear, and secondly, the decisions that should make sense, don’t, not always. Elias (the main male protagonist) wants to escape his life in an Empire that treats humanity as slaves. His decision to flee is based on his wish for freedom, but an Augur named Cain turns aside that decision and asks him to stay and face the thing he fears most: absolute inclusion into the Empire he loathes. In the end, he wins his freedom, but not by the route all (himself included) expect. The Augur has known this all along, and Tahir does an exquisite job of peeling back this complex theme so it wallops you with a powerhouse punch at the end. OH, that worked! It worked so well!
In one spot in the book, there is a place where Elias faces a choice: To kill his best friends? Or allow himself to be killed? Who will ultimately die on that sacrificial altar? Tahir sets up two riveting and contrasting scenarios. Elias and another character (Zak) face the same choice: kill or die? Elias chooses one way, Zak the other, and the fallout afterward shows the importance of sacrifice, of picking a direction. Either choice leads to a destination, one that ultimately teaches the lessons the character must learn, but the cost of those decisions is sometimes greater than expected.
4.) Well-Written Romance: This is the only place in the book where I feel like Tahir could have done more. Goodness knows that I don’t think putting more sex into a book necessarily equates to better romance; I’ve seen that done before, and often, such a course only weakens it. I wanted, instead, to see more stability among the love triangles than what actually showed up. I wanted to know the why behind the falling in love–beyond just the natural draw (which does happen, I’m sure). Two love triangles were quite evident throughout the book, and of those two triangles, only one relationship–I thought–was based on more than appearance and a few seconds of attraction. I won’t say who, but that is the only relationship I was pulling for (despite where I think Tahir will eventually take the romance). I know who I’m supposed to root for, but I’m not feeling it… yet. This is only the first in a series, though. Perhaps I’ll change my mind as I go. I hope so, because I am obsessed with the satisfaction of a love hard-fought and well-won.
Overall, An Ember in the Ashes is now on my list of favorites, right alongside Collins’s The Hunger Games and Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I have a small collection of books that I read again and again and again, and I believe this will be one of them. I can’t wait to start on the next book in the series, A Torch Against the Night.
Four stars. I’d give it a four and a half if I could, but I’ll reserve the five stars for if the romance improves in the continuing series.