Sunday, June 14, 2015

Review: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir


(Sorry that I don't have a better picture! I borrowed this book from work as part of the bookseller loan program, and when we borrow books we have to leave the dust jackets at the store!)

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. 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.

It has been way too long since I sat down and plowed my way through a good fantasy novel. People were just raving about this book, so naturally I had to know what all the fuss was about. And you know what? I totally get it. I loved this book.

First of all I must just be super into narratives with alternating perspectives this summer. I guess I like it because it offers the same direct insight into characters' minds and personalities as a regular first person narration without being forced to narrowly focus on the experiences of a single character, so you can still offer multiple perspectives. That works particularly well in this novel, as the two focused on characters have very, very different experiences and perspectives to offer the reader. Laia is a slave girl who has spent her life fearing the empire and who has lost everything at the hands of a Mask, whereas Elias is the most promising up-and-coming Mask at the military academy. Talk about a difference in life experiences, am I right?

I also really loved Laia's character. She is a great example of a female character who is in an oppressive situation, but who still has agency and is still a well defined, well written character. So many writers get hella lazy when writing female characters when they are placing them in oppressive situations, and on the flip side many critics are quick to accuse writers of writing weak characters simply based on the situation the woman is put it. Laia is an excellent reminder that one does not need to be powerful within her world or society to be well written or strong. She is slave, but she is also so, so much more, and she still commands quite a bit of agency over her own life.

Honestly, the female characters are pretty fantastic across the board. Despite being heavily outnumbered by male characters, they range from slave girls to warriors to the steely commander of Blackwater. They all have their own strengths, weaknesses, flaws, and motives, you know, like real people do. It is pretty sad that in 2015 I have to get excited over a book that manages to offer three-dimensional female characters, but there it is, so A+ to Tahir for that. It's almost like having female writers makes a difference in how women are portrayed. Weird.

Overall, I think what I enjoyed most about the book was that the story went in a completely different direction from what I was expecting. I'm not saying there was a huge plot twist that blew my mind, it was nothing like that, but I did have a clear idea of where I thought the story was going and it just very nonchalantly did not. That doesn't happen very often, so I was pleasantly surprised by that. I don't want to say specifics because spoilers, but I was happy that the book did not take what seemed to me to be the obvious route.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone looking for a great new fantasy series to jump into. There are some hints throughout the book that something big is happening in the background, and I cannot wait to see where Laia's and Elias' stories take them next!

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