By Katy Goodwin-Bates
Some books slowly ease you in, allowing you to settle into the fictional world, get used to the characters, perhaps drink a cup of tea. An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir provides no such luxury, launching the reader straight into the action, with an opening that sees Laia’s brother abducted and grandparents murdered. This takes place along side a huge amount of world-building. If you try to consume a hot beverage while reading this, you’re likely to end up in the emergency room.
Tahir’s characters live under the reign of the Martial Empire, a tyrannical regime which overthrew the peaceful Scholars some years ago. The political background is interwoven throughout the narrative, with both Laia and Elias unwittingly caught up in a dangerous world of masked soldiers and untrustworthy rebels. Having escaped capture by the Masks, Laia seeks refuge with the rebels who were once led by her mother. Elias, a Mask himself, has equivalent mommy issues, which see him about to graduate from a kind of evil Hogwarts of which his own matriarch is the psychotic Commander.
There’s much about the initial chapters of An Ember in the Ashes which reminded me of Alwyn Hamilton’s Rebel of the Sands, although Tahir’s story is more frenetically paced from the outset, which places a limit on the amount of character development possible; although I felt like I learned a lot about Elias and his conflicted feelings about his role in the Empire, Laia’s chapters are so occupied with escapes and seemingly hopeless dreams of rescuing her brother that we learn less about her.
“Every student knows what’s coming. I clench and unclench my fists. I don’t want to watch this. Like all Blackcliff students, I came to the school at the age of six, and in the fourteen years since, I’ve witnessed punishments thousands of times. My own back is a map of the school’s brutality. But deserters are always the worst.” – page 26
What was more compelling to me than the protagonists was the setting; having something of a weird obsession with creepy, subterranean burial sites, Laia’s first encounter with the rebels in the catacombs had me from “hello,” and I was enthralled by the depiction of Blackcliff Academy, a school which recruits tiny children before abandoning them in the wilderness for years to test their survival skills. The fact that the “academy” in the school’s name may be slightly euphemistic is evident from the map that precedes the novel. The school I teach at isn’t perfect, but if I drew a map of it, it wouldn’t have to feature an armory or something called “Skull Barracks,” so I might stop complaining about how uncomfortable my desk-chair is. As Laia finds herself an unwitting resident of Blackcliff, another side to the school is made clear; while Elias loathes the violence meted out against students, Laia finds herself at very real risk of being a victim of it herself.
The issue of violence, both actual and implied, is a thorny one in An Ember in the Ashes. Within the walls of Blackcliff, it is an acknowledged–if not universally accepted–truth that women serve one purpose, and if they would prefer not to serve that purpose, so much the better. It’s a brutality which I know has proved too much for some readers of Tahir’s book. The word “rape” is used regularly, primarily as a threat; in terms of the principle characters, it remains just that, although the fact that a key facilitator of this atmosphere of fear and aggression is a woman has the potential to add further discomfort. Violence against women is not used in the novel in a sensationalist way, and could be said to highlight the depressing reality of rape as a military tactic in non-fictional conflict, although it is, perhaps, questionable whether this needs to be raised in a YA fantasy novel.
“In the moonlight, the forbidding buildings of Blackcliff are almost beautiful, the sable granite softened to blue. The school is, as always, eerily hushed. I never feared the night, not even as a child, but Blackcliff’s is different, heavy with silence that makes you look over your shoulder, a silence that feels like a living thing.” – page 224
While Rebel of the Sands was more fun and more expansive, An Ember in the Ashes is claustrophobic, approaching its insidious subject matter with far more seriousness, which does make it a less entertaining read. That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, because I did, and I’ll be seeking out the sequel when it comes out later this year. It is certainly a grittier book than Rebel, with a level of violence and peril which I would describe as too much for younger readers if I didn’t know that teenagers flinch far less at vicious executions than I do.
An Ember in the Ashes will be available soon at GPL.