When I first came across An Ember in the Ashes, by Sabaa Tahir, I wasn’t quite sure what to think of it. Going only by its own summary, it seemed kind of Hunger Games-ish, with a contrived, simplistic setting of “stupidly evil empire destroying everything with its dominance,” and also Twilight-ish, with a forced, predictable, forbidden coupling that would just magically happen and work out. Yet, despite this, I found myself intrigued by something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and as I’ve been experimenting with my reading material, trying new things, I let my curiosity win out soon enough.
I am humble enough to admit when I am wrong, and I was. Well, in a way. One could say my first impression, with accompanying concerns, was accurate, but there’s more to it than that. There is much more to it, so much that summing this novel up like that would feel shallow at best and doing it an injustice at worst. An Ember in the Ashes proved far better than I thought, and I quite enjoyed it.
Be warned, considerable spoilers may follow! 🙂
First, let me address what were my concerns.
I was somewhat right about the simplicity of the setting. I mean, how much more “simple” can it be than to refer to entire ethnic groups as “Scholars,” “Martials,” “Tribesmen,” “Mariners,” and “Barbarians,” eh? Then again… well, as I was reading, it somehow felt more like I was reading a story that was translated into English for me. Did you know that many of our names, as individuals and as entire groups, have very simple, straightforward meanings in their original language? I can’t count the number of stories I’ve read where that has been important and/or lent the story a richer texture. Reading An Ember in the Ashes felt like being taken back to the times of antiquity when these words, these names, were still new, and literal, being spoken in the language that birthed them. So the “simplicity” was surprisingly not simple.
That applies to the whole, “stupidly evil empire persecuting its own people,” thing too. I’m still trying to skate around spoilers at the moment, but I will say that the irrational persecution of the Scholars by their Martial masters makes perfect sense when one realizes that the Martial Empire is being led around by an entity that has a very old, very deep, and very personal grudge against the entire Scholar population. It’s an ancient blood feud that few people even realize still exists, if they even remember it at all.
As for my second point, about the coupling… again, there is some merit to it being obvious, at least from the outside, and forbidden… and technically it does happen “magically,” which goes into so many spoilers that I am not going to elaborate further… and yet, it’s nothing like I feared it would be. The two main characters, Laia and Elias, do have a legitimate physical attraction to each other, both being, you know, humans with libidos, but there’s a great deal more to their coupling than that. Both of them are victims and slaves, abused by the same people and suffering terrible losses, and both are seen as somehow “not human.” Both have strength and resolve, both are clever, though Laia is less experienced than Elias in using that cleverness. Both find, in each other, an unexpected friend and ally.
Mind you, it was getting a bit ridiculous the third time Elias saved Laia’s life, but she managed to return the favor in the end. (oops! Spoilers!) I also liked how each of them did have another “potential” romantic interest. But most of all, I think what I like most about their relationship is how they help each other, strengthen each other, teach each other, and help each other save their own soul. They are drawn together as a result of their individual journeys, which happen to intertwine. They are kindred spirits, so it makes all the sense in the world for them to be together. Elias learns hard lessons in his struggle to be free, and Laia learns her own lessons as she strives to save her imprisoned brother. They both grow tremendously, and help each other through their worst ordeals.
Which brings me to something else I love about this novel. Again, it seems simple, and there are obvious clues as to the larger story at work here, but it’s a well-crafted story. Everything that happens throughout the story has a direct influence on the climax, either setting it up or resolving it. Our heroes go through Hell, alone, and come out on top, at least for the moment.
The story is gripping, the ordeals heart-breaking, the language entrancing, and the characters make sense in ways I never expected out this novel when I first began reading it.
Why did Twlight have to come out before this one? I actually like this one! Stephanie Meyer, take note! This is a quality story! 🙂
And you know that it just has to be converted to a cinematic format! It just has to! 🙂
The one thing I have against this novel? I want the sequel! Now! Sabaa Tahir chose an excellent stopping point – I am always going to appreciate that after reading The Fellowship of the Ring – but I want to know what happens next!
In short, she does her job, and it’s easy to see why this fantasy novel is a bestseller, and I predict A Torch Against the Night will be one as well. I will certainly be reading it! 🙂
Rating: …I still can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m giving An Ember in the Ashes a full 10 stars out of 10.