Title: An Ember in the Ashes
Series Title: An Ember in the Ashes
Author: Sabaa Tahir
Date Added: December 30, 2015
Date Started: May 17, 2017
Date Finished: June 28, 2017
Reading Duration: 42 days
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult (YA), Romance
Shares Paradigms With: Hunger Games, Final Fantasy VII
Laia is a slave.
Elias is a soldier.
Neither is free.
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.
There are two kinds of guilt. The kind that’s a burden and the kind that gives you a purpose. Let your guilt be your fuel. Let it remind you of who you want to be. Draw a line in your mind. Never cross it again. You have a soul. It’s damaged, but it’s there. Don’t let them take it from you…
Alternating between Laia, a Scholar made slave, and Elias, a Mask turned aspirant, An Ember in the Ashes is a story of a concurrent struggle for freedom against a brutal regime that oppresses not only the conquered populace, but also forces its own citizens to fall in line with its totalitarian sway. Resistance is met with swift retribution by the elite Masks, and rebellion is quelled with equal parts fire and equal parts blood. The circumstances of Elias and Laia’s particular bondage eventually bring them together in not only proximity but also fate, proving that the difference between soldier and slave is less of a gap and more of a term.
Laia’s story begins with her brother Darrin’s arrest for owning sketches of Martial weapons, which are the very reason the Empire has held her people in thrall for so long. The once purveyors of knowledge have no recourse against their enemy’s forged Serran steel, which is a secret well hoarded with only certain blacksmiths able to manufacture it..
Alone and desperate, Laia seeks out the Scholar rebellion for help…the same rebellion that betrayed her parents and landed Darrin in a Martial prison. However, there are people within the organization who remember her mother the Lioness and expect her remaining daughter to live up to that name if she wants their aid.
Elias may have more prestige, but he is no freer than Laia. Abandoned by his own mother at birth, he was taken in by Mamie Rila of the Tribe Saif and raised as their own, but when his grandfather discovered his existence, Quin Veturias made the child his heir, while other factors ensured Elias joined Blackcliff Academy, the Empire’s military school where only the best survive, and Elias is one of the elite.
If they ever decide to translate this book/series into a visual medium (which is more likely than not seeing as YA books are hot items for films), they sure as hell better not whitewash the characters. The world of the Empire was inspired by ancient Rome, which was populated by people of various ethnicity and hues, not to mention the setting of Serra is in the desert, and many of the Tribes people are literally described as having dark skin.
The author herself is a woman of color,
and I will also be exceedingly pissed if there’s another Rue/Hunger Games situation, where Suzanne Collins explicitly states that characters have “dark skin,” and people still act both surprised and super racist when they don’t “live up to” their erroneous interpretations. Because people who are usually this wrong are rarely quiet, Twitter blew up with headdesk level bigotry and ignorance, and unfortunately, I could see the same happening here.
It seems like the only people who are decidedly white in Ember are the conquering Martials (do with that what you will…): Helene, Keris, and possibly Elias, though his description and some of the pictures I’ve found suggest he could go either way, and since the identity of his father is unknown, he could be a mixture of Tribes or Scholars and Martials. I hope if this story is optioned for film, they’d consult Ms. Tahir or at the very least pay attention to the descriptions. Alright, this rant is over, but I have another one later on.
The motto of Gens Veturia is “Always victorious,” and I’m sure it’s no coincidence that “victorious” and Veturius sound nearly identical.
In his last year, days before graduation, Elias can think of nothing more than defecting. He abhors what Blackcliff has turned him into, despite his military prowess, and he also loathes his literal mask, *spoiler* which is like Majora’s from the Legend of Zelda game insofar as it burrows in and molds to one’s flesh. *end spoiler* It is the synecdoche for what he is and what he’s forced to hide behind.
The ritual execution of a caught deserter, a child and the brother of one of Elias’s classmates, only strengthens his convictions against the Empire, but there are always mitigating factors. The one is his best friend Helene who is dedicated soldier to the bone
…and the other is his mother.
Keris Veturia, the brutal Commandant of Blackcliff Academy, has never even acknowledged Elias as her son. She hates him utterly for reasons initially unknown nor could she care less that he’s the epitome of the elite soldier that Blackcliff strives to produce. The fact that her progeny has learned the lessons of brutality (arguably) better than all only serves as a stone in Keris’s shoe. She would relish both torturing and killing him, and if she knew what dissension lay in his heart, the Commandant would smile to the coming red feast. This cold animosity and empty loathing is not reserved for Elias alone, and Laia’s circumstances lead the Scholar maid to fall under both Keris’s control and lash.
Prepare for the second rant…
So I started prepping this post Thursday night (7/27/17), and what I’ll often do is go check out other reviewers on Goodreads just to see their opinions. The book has a 4.32 rating there, so it was very well received, but every now and then, I’ll magnanimously entertain the opinion of the plebeians and want to see what those who rated it lower have to say, even though it’s rare I’ll agree with or even respect such opinions (they’re usually not well informed) when I rate such a work as high quality. As I feared, this turned out to be a bad plan, and I should have known better given an important motif in the book/series…
The first one star review complained about how the novel was boring without giving reasons for or examples of why it was so. Negative, subjective claims should have objective, expository critiques. If you’re going to give any work a poor rating, at least be able to express why you’re bequeathing such a low score. The writer/author at least deserves that. A one or two star ranking without explanation doesn’t do anything for them. We don’t know what to change and/or how to improve without valuable concrit.
I posted my thoughts on this on Facebook, and a friend replied that not everyone can express themselves well enough to speak on why they feel a certain way. I acknowledge this, and I don’t want to come off as an elitist (though I’m sure it’s already too late for that caveat). You have the right to your preference, and you’re entitled to your informed opinion. If you don’t like a book or any other work, you don’t like it, but if you’re going to rate or review it, you should have solid reasoning to present. Otherwise, just say, “It wasn’t for me,” or something along those lines. The series is pretty popular so a few one star ratings won’t really matter, but for smaller or indie authors, it can be devastating for no discernible reason. You’re not providing critique or ways to improve; you’re just being a bully.
As much as this annoyed me intellectually, I could handle it. Then I came to the next one star…a reviewer who decided to focus on how Elias did nothing but bitch about his “mommy issues,”
*incoherent swearing* And that’s when they lost all credibility, but the damage was already done. Once I see it, I can’t unsee it, and despite my claims to being an emotionless robot (I will succeed in achieving that one day), it bothered the fuck out of me. So much so that I had trouble writing the review and had to hold off on even working on it for a few days. For half a second I debated replying and ripping the person a new one, but it would be an exercise in futility, and my energy is best served doing other things and venting about it here.
This was actually far more cathartic than starting a potential fight with someone on the internet who couldn’t possibly have a clue how triggering their offhanded statement was, which is something I could rant about for a while i.e. people not thinking of other’s feelings when they mock mental issues, but I’ll just leave it here and return to the review proper.
The moment of Elias and Laia’s meeting is not the hackneyed YA stars and hearts. Typically, when there’s a main male and female character (so long as they’re both straight), we the readers know they’re going to end up together despite the love triangles that seek to divide them. It is far more complicated than that in Ember, because Elias and Laia are entangled in situations that affect more than just themselves, and, similar to Hunger Games, their goals are about survival, rescue, and freedom.
While both do have some prior, potential love interests to unravel, Laia’s main task remains: find a way to free her brother, while Elias’s dreams of desertion have been put on hold for far more pressing matters that could leave him in a more powerful, if still perilous, position or outright dead..
The Empire is not above turning friends against each other in blood sport and contest that only one can win, though in the end, it appears to be a sham played out by the elusive Augurs who purportedly can see the future and certainly read people’s thoughts. Cain, the Augur who consistently seeks Elias out, reveals at least the latter to him, though he insists it will be Elias’s choices that determine not only his personal future, but that of the Empire itself. It’s also too ingenious to ignore that in this process Cain sets two brothers against each other, forcing them fight to the death, which is a beautiful Biblical comparison.
The odds favor neither main character, though they begin on opposite ends of the Empire’s spectrum, and Ms. Tahir is brilliant at keeping the tension high throughout. She also does a wonderful job of showing that oppressive governments not only terrorize their victims, but also their own people if the latter do not comply. This is not to imply the conquered population doesn’t suffer more, because obviously those who’ve been colonized and/or enslaved are far more oppressed than the citizenry, but the concept of oppression is more of a sliding scale than a dichotomy. Injustice may not affect everyone equally, but it does affect us all, and it is those who stand against it despite the consequences who grow from the ember to the spark.