First of all I have to say that this isn’t the type of book I’d usually pick out for myself. It isn’t that I’d be completely uninterested; it’s just that it’s one of those that sound too similar to others I’ve read. It’s a high fantasy, and a dystopian YA – and like most dystopian YA, the worldbuilding is easy to poke holes into, but enjoyable and intriguing enough if I left it alone. Anyway, the reason I did want to read it is because of the author – I’ve enjoyed reading Sabaa Tahir’s tweets, and these days I’d try most POC YA authors, because I realise that my reading lists are still distressingly white.
The world we are introduced to is inspired by Ancient Rome, with a sort of Middle Eastern twist (which I don’t see other people mentioning, so is it just me? But, but – deserts and storytellers and ghuls and efrits!) with a caste system that I understand more easily than others, because it’s similar to caste systems I know in real life. The Scholars once ruled the Empire, until the Martials took over the rule with brute force. What remains of the Scholars now live in quarters or squats, surviving any way they can – they aren’t allowed to learn to read, and may only do physical work. This is how Laia lives with her brother Darin and their grandparents, until the day the Mask (the Martial Empire’s law enforcement and assassins) raids their house, kills their grandparents, and takes Darin away.
Determined to save Darin, Laia tries to find the Scholar rebels that are said to be working to overthrow the Empire, but what she finds isn’t what she expects. Far from driven to help fellow Scholars, Laia is given an ultimatum – if she wants their help in saving Darin, she would have to agree to be sold as a slave to the Commandant of the Martials’ school for Masks, and spy on behalf of the resistance. There, Laia first has to learn to cope with her new duties as a slave, and to withstand the Commandant, who whips and mutilates her slaves for the most minor infractions. She also meets Elias, an unwilling Mask/soldier who wishes he could desert and be free from the Empire.
Elias has his own set of problems. Abandoned at birth by his mother, he was raised by Tribespeople until the Martial Augurs came for him in his early teens, to be delivered back to his true family, and sent to the Martial school. Perhaps due to his free childhood, Elias sees the Martials’ cruelty for what it is, and wants nothing to do with it, but is trapped since the only other choice is horrible death. And now, at what was supposed to be his graduation, he learns that he is to be one of the four Aspirants to the throne – of the four, two will survive, and two will not. If he survives, he will be tied to the throne, and the Martial Empire, for the rest of his life. If he doesn’t, he will be dead.
Elias and Laia’s lives are very different, but their fate is tied in a way that is hinted at but isn’t revealed in this book – I guess we’ll see in the next book, which I definitely do want to read. I hope that the next book will happen, because I’ve read that while Sabaa Tahir have planned the entire series out, Penguin only bought the first book so far. I really like how the book follows both Laia and Elias’ points of view, and how that draws a clear image of what it’s like being a Scholar or a Martial in that world. Their lives and ways of thinking are very different, but on the fringes of both narratives they also mention the other castes and how the Martials/Scholars view them.
What I find very unlikely is the fact that Laia comes out of her experience as a slave with her good looks and chastity intact; this is obviously not the experience of the other slaves. It’s not that I want bad things to happen to her – it’s that she lives in a world where bad things happen to people in her situation, and it’s just strange to me that a book that doesn’t shy away from detailing extreme cruelty and violence, would have its two main characters coming out of things mostly unscathed (Elias does go through emotional trauma that I hope will be addressed rather than forgotten in the next book). This made me raise an eyebrow in disbelief, but doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book.
This is one of the ones that I think can do really well, and kept making me wish for a movie the whole time I was reading. It has love triangles that I don’t love but also don’t hate, and Elias is one of the rare YA male protagonists that I don’t find boring. The violence and suspense make me think of The Hunger Games more than any other YA I’ve read, but at the same time it’s nothing like it. I said in the beginning that the synopsis sounds like any other YA title to me, but as I read it, I can’t think of another title that compares easily to An Ember in the Ashes. It’s one of the ones I can recommend with no reservations. So – I hope that Penguin publishes the second book!