4.5 out of 5 stars
If you don’t love this book, I’ll give you your money back. That’s how good it is. (I listened to the audiobook, which has wonderful narrators.)
An Ember in the Ashes starts off brutal, and stays that way. Tahir’s world of Serra and beyond reads like a smothering blanket of subjugation and warmongering thrown over ancient Rome. The very names – Elias Veturius, Helene Aquilla – sound like clanking armor and stomping boots. The landscape is vaguely familiar, while also unlike anything you’ve read before.
It begins with Laia, our heroine and member of the Scholar race. They’re also exactly what they sound like – scholars – though the empire of learning and culture they once sat atop has risen up and crushed them under its heel. The Martials rule now, with their military and a grip on the invincible Serric steel of their weapons, which the other races don’t know how to produce. In the opening pages, Laia’s family is killed a second time: her parents were part of the Scholar resistance, and paid for it with their lives years before. Now the Masks, the top-trained assassins of the Emperor’s army, have come again – this time for her brother, Darin. He gets Laia free, giving himself up to capture in the process.
What follows is so good that I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice to say that Laia ends up a member of the Resistance out of coincidence, a slave out of desperation and a heroine out of sheer force of will.
When she finds herself captive to the Commandant, evil headmistress of the savage military school at Blackcliff, Laia’s struggle as becomes intensely layered and perfectly written. She is weak and strong, dedicated and faltering. Laia freely admits she needs help – something so few YA heroines do – and it makes her character relateable in a rare way.
But even better than Laia is Elias. Abandoned son of the merciless Commandant, Elias is saved as a child by Serra’s tribal people, only to be ripped from them as a child and returned to Blackcliff to survive, or not, the education that will make him a Mask. He’s a bastard, a reluctant murderer, despised by his mother and yet extremely skilled in the same barbaric arts. He is also the heir to his family, called, as all the Martial families are, a “gens” of their name, as if an army unto themselves. The questions of loyalty and honor, of right and wrong, burn deeply in Elias, shining out so that his classmates, friends and even his enemies see them through the cracks in his emotional armor. Tahir does a wonderful job drawing him as both a boy and a man, lost and found, unsure and single-minded. He looks like a swoon-worthy YA hero – 6’4″, muscle-bound and lantern-jawed – but he suffers like a poet.
The internal conflict of Tahir’s characters is exceptionally well done. Each drama heaped upon them, from battles of steel to those of the heart, filters through many layers of thought and decision. The consequences are real to them. And to the reader.
There are parts of An Ember in the Ashes that are hard to read: slavery, torture, rape and threats of worse. The only reason it’s “young adult” is because it features young adults. But their stories and struggles would be heart-wrenching for any age, and so this book transcends its genre with ease.