Title: An Ember in the Ashes (2015)
Author: Sabaa Tahir
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Read: 22nd – 24th June 2018
Genre: young-adult; fantasy
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
“Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. When Laia’s grandparents are brutally murdered and her brother arrested for treason by the empire, the only people she has left to turn to are the rebels. But in exchange for their help in saving her brother, they demand that Laia spy on the ruthless Commandant of Blackcliff, the Empire’s greatest military academy. Should she fail it’s more than her brother’s freedom at risk… Laia’s very life is at stake. There, she meets Elias, the academy’s finest soldier. But Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.”
(Synopsis from the publisher)
With references to legionnaires, amphitheatres, gens, augurs, and emperors clearly inspired by Ancient Rome, An Ember in the Ashes is partway fantasy partway dystopian as it tells the story of Elias and Laia, two teenagers on very different sides of a society. The side to which Elias belongs are the victors, the rulers of the Empire, and the elite who are trained at the Blackcliff Military Academy – they are the Martials. The side to which Laia belongs were the previous elite of the society, now made inferior, enslaved, often beaten, and downtrodden to the point of constant fear and paranoia – they are the Scholars. From a very simple setup, Sabaa Tahir creates a rich and gritty fantasy world that is constantly high-stakes for its characters and proves to be page-turning to the very last page.
“There is no cursing, no yelling, no bluffing. We are, all of us, trapped in a pocket of unending violence. Swords grinding and friends dying and sleet knifing down on us.”
The book is told in present tense dual-perspective, with chapters flipping between Elias and Laia’s points of view, so that we get an insight into the attitudes of both the Scholars and the Martials. When the story begins, we find our protagonists experiencing a Martial raid on their family’s home (in Laia’s case) and tracking a deserter from the Blackcliff martial academy whilst he plans himself to desert when opportunity knocks (in Elias’ case). Through this, readers can quickly discern that these young people are, because of their respective social standings, forced into compromising circumstances with extremely high stakes for the both of them. Laia finds her entire family at risk because of Martial brutality leading to her brother (Darin) spying for the rebel factions of the city; meanwhile Elias, one of the most successful cadets at the Academy, finds himself questioning the regime which he is not only part of but also the literal child of, as his mother is the infamous Commandant of the Academy. Very quickly their two paths become entwined at Blackcliff and, though they are two sides of one coin, their relationship is far from uncomplicated.
“No matter how clever Scholar uprisings have been, in the end it comes down to steel against steel, and in that battle, the Martials always win.”
What I like most about An Ember in the Ashes may make me sound slightly sadistic – I love the visceral brutality of it all. Sabaa Tahir doesn’t just tell you that Blackcliff forces its soldiers-in-training to do despicable things, she allows her narrative to show you, unequivocally, that the Martials are capable of very despicable things because they truly believe that they are the rightful rulers of the Empire. Likewise, she doesn’t shy away from allowing her reader to see the real individuals behind the literal Masks/soldiers, and shows Elias’ comrades in arms, laughing and joking with one another, as well as facing gruelling challenges in the name of proving themselves as soldiers.
” ‘She’s a comrade-in-arms, Grandfather,’ I say. ‘Could you love a fellow soldier the way you loved Grandmother?’
‘None of my fellows were tall blonde girls.’ “
If you like, the highs make the lows all the more low, and I think it’s brave of Sabaa Tahir not to shy away from exploring the brutality of the Martial Empire in such certain terms. It makes for a more complex characterisation of the characters we encounter, and allows for much more development in this story and the sequels to come. In particular, I found myself particularly interested by the character of Helene Aquilla, an interest which has continued on into my read of A Torch Against the Night, the second book in the series. Her sense of loyalty and duty is very much tested in this book, as head wars with heart, and it’s not entirely clear at any given point which is going to win when she is pitted against her friend Elias and forced to make a choice which is more important.
“Life is made of so many moments that mean nothing. Then one day, a single moment comes along to define every second that comes after. Such moments are tests of courage, of strength.”
This re-read of An Ember in the Ashes has proven to me that I adore the world which Sabaa Tahir has constructed, and I appreciate it even more on re-read, because I realise the true gravity of what is at stake for all of these characters. I found myself focusing in on characters I’d previously ignored – Marcus, for one, I’d previously written off as a cackling villain but I’m now intrigued by him. I found it to be an enriching experience to also listen to this book mostly on audiobook, which I would heartily recommend if you’re looking for a new audiobook. I had somehow managed to forget the dramatic cliff-hanger ending of this book, but it does make me wonder how on earth anyone ever thought the story could legitimately end there and be a standalone. This is a book that cries out for a sequel and, luckily, Sabaa Tahir delivered, creating a vivid and unflinching narrative which interrogates themes of duty, destiny, slavery, loyalty, courage, family, friendship, and camaraderie.
” ‘ This life is not always what we think it will be,’ Cain says. ‘You are an ember in the ashes […] You will spark and burn, ravage and destroy. You cannot change it. You cannot stop it.’ “