An Ember in the Ashes
Razorbill/Penguin, 2015 443 pgs
Alternating chapters and points of view tell the story of Elias, a Martial from the ruling class and Laia a poor member of the now conquered Scholars living in an ancient Spartan-esque society. For five hundred years the Martials have ruled the land severely discriminating against the scholars, treating them no better than slaves and completely destroying their academic culture. Laia is born to a scholar family and must watch as her brother is arrested and her grandparents murdered. Her late parents were leaders in the resistance and it is to them that she turns to find help for her brother. The resistance is willing to help Laia: but for a price. She must pose as a slave and infiltrate Blackcliff, a Martial fortress and training school, working for the cruel Commandante in order to find a secret passage through which the resistance can access the fortress. Meanwhile, Elias is on the cusp of graduation from Blackcliff, becoming an elite assassin called a Mask, which is as prestigious as you can get in this military society. The road to graduation has been brutal and bloody and Elias wants to desert in order to find a peaceful life. His plans go awry as it is announced that a new emperor will be chosen from the new crop of masks and Elias is one of the chosen four set to compete. The Augurs, an immortal elite group of holy people who advise and make important decisions for the society, have prophesied that through the competition Elias will finally find the freedom that he seeks. Because of the Augurs prediction, Elias moves forward, competing against his best friend and sole woman in the program, Helene and two worst enemies. Laia manages to infiltrate the school and become the personal slave to the vicious Commandante (who also happens to be Elias' mother) and her story and Elias' begins to intersect. Sparks fly between Elias and Alia, but both of them also have other potential love interests, making the path for the star-crossed lovers that much more rocky. Violence abounds, as does non-stop action, adventure, and plot twists, finally building up to an exciting and unpredictable conclusion.
As it sounds from the plot description offered above, a lot happens in this book. I can promise you that while reading first-time author, Tahir's, new book coming out next month, you will not be bored. 443 pages discouraged me and I didn't love the cover. I didn't want to commit to this book and thought it would be just another dystopian teen novel. I told myself to try 100 pages. After the first chapter I was hooked and couldn't put it down. The book is dystopian-ish, although set in the past not the future. It is an alternate ancient culture, similar to that of Sparta. I can't think of reading a book with this setting, so to me it feels very fresh. The plot has light magic, but its not predominate to the book, making it fantasy, but not really. Its actually hard to pigeon-hole An Ember in the Ashes. It seems to cross genres and will appeal to a broad audience of both boys and girls. Teens raised on Percy Jackson will naturally gravitate towards this book. The main characters are surprisingly developed for an adventure story. Elias is drawn noticeably well. Laia is more likable than Bella, softer than Katniss, and more relate-able than Triss. In short, I liked her and didn't find her annoying, which is unusual for me. The evil characters are a bit more uni-dimensional, but this may be because we are learning about them through Elias and Laia's eye. Tahir keeps two very distinct voices going through out the story and it is always clear who's point of view we are experiencing. For a large cast of characters I did not get people confused, which is a huge testament to Tahir's writing abilities. One warning: the book has some extremely violent bits and is not for the faint of heart. I would not recommend this book for young people under age fourteen. That said, the violence is always appropriate to the plot and is cool in a Game of Thrones way. The plot builds up to a huge crescendo. Some significant plot lines are solved making the reader feel a sense of closure, but the main characters have a new challenge, which serves as a natural lead-in to the next installment. Tahir is a fresh talent and An Ember in the Ashes is a great book: quite possibly the next "big thing".