Tahir, Sabaa. An Ember in the Ashes. 2015. New York. Razorbill, Penguin Random House.
Elias is about to graduate from Black Cliff Military Academy. Once he does he will be a high ranking military warrior called a “Mask”. His mother, the “Commandant of Black Cliff” is the leader of the school. However, unlike most mothers’ she hates Elias, and doesn’t let him get away with anything. The Emperor is aged and he has yet to produce an heir to the throne. The High Priests declare that a new emperor must be chosen from among the students of Black Cliff. Elias is one of the students chosen to face the trials. The winner of the trials will become emperor. Second place will become “Blood Shrike”, the emperor’s right hand. All others will die. Elias must choose whether this is a contest he wants to win, and what his destiny really is.
Laia is part of the race of “Scholars”. Years before her people were conquered by the empire, and now they are persecuted. Her brother, Darin has been spying for the resistance, and taken away in a raid while the rest of her family is killed by Masks. Laia escapes the slaughter, and flees to the resistance for help. Their leader makes a deal with her. She must become a slave and spy on the Commandant to gather information useful to the resistance. If she completes her task then they will break her brother out of prison. It’s a risky bargain as the Commandant runs a military academy, and is known to be extremely cruel to her slaves. If Laia is discovered she will be killed. Can she spy for the resistance, or will this be an impossible mission?
Teens will find Elias and Laia to be very relatable characters struggling with life, family, friendship, loyalty, oppression, and a thirst for positive change.
An Ember in the Ashes is a very well-paced novel. While Elias is participating in the trials the novel is action packed, but the pace is slower as Laia learns the routine and cruelty of serving the Commandant. These two main points of view alternate not allowing either to become stagnant. Tahir sets the scene with excellent writing, and characters teens can identify with. The novel builds in intensity, and ends with the reader wanting more. This is Tahir’s first novel, and it will be interesting to see how she develops this series further.
Elias is a likeable character despite being a Mask and serving the empire. He struggles with his relationships to the three central women in his life, the Commandant, Laia, and Helene. Helene is also a Mask and Elias has trouble relating to her as a friend. Helene is in love with him, and he can’t seem to deal with her wanting their relationship to be more. He avoids the subject whenever she tries to bring it up. However, he does find her attractive and that causes him to push her away. He doesn’t want to ruin their friendship with a romantic relationship.
The Commandant has hated Elias ever since he was born. To avoid the shame that she had him out of wedlock ,Elias was given to a traveling caravan of nomadic people to be raised. When her father found out Elias was brought back and made his heir. Elias took her place in the line of succession. In a particularly emotional scene she tells Elias the reason she despises him, and that they will never have a loving relationship. It’s a particularly well written scene in the novel. Elias seems to have a burgeoning relationship with Laia, and helps her along the way. He finds her attractive and it seems they may become romantically involved further along in the series. They share a dance at a festival and it’s one of the happier scenes in the book.
Laia starts off the story as a timid character. She worries that her brother Darrin will get the family in trouble. After Darrin is arrested and her grandparents are killed she becomes determined to free him. She must face her fears of the empire while working for the commandant. Laia has a possible relationship with Elias, but at first she is enamored of another fighter in the resistance. The reader gets to know her slowly, and she isn’t a fully formed character yet. Hopefully sequels will fill in the blanks in her personality.
Helene, while a minor character compared to Elias and Laia is quite interesting. She is a female Mask in the military and has to deal with all sorts of slights and insults. She is a gifted warrior and can best most of the men she trains with. It’s hard for her to be seen as a warrior and not just as a woman. She is often objectified by her fellow soldiers, and even at times by Elias. Women in any military service most likely grapple with problems as Helene does. When she is chosen for the trials she is taken more seriously. She wants to win the trials to release Elias from service even if it means losing him forever. Helene is a strong interesting character whom the reader can root for possibly even more than Laia.
“First-time novelist Tahir has written an ambitious sword-and-sand adventure story that is notable for its suspense and scope.” —Booklist
“An original, well-constructed fantasy world…truly engaging.” —Kirkus Reviews
“[An Ember in the Ashes] thrusts its readers into a world marred by violence and oppression, yet does so with simple prose that can offer moments of loveliness in its clarity. This complexity makes Ember a worthy novel—and one as brave as its characters.” —The New York Times Book Review
Book Clubs or discussion groups could talk about the triangle between Elias, Laia, and Helene. They could talk about how the stigma of being an unwed mother like the commandant is still an issue in society even today. Helen struggles with sexism in the military. Slavery and Human trafficking are very serious issues today. Characters like the commandant’s cook and kitchen girl represent the cruelty of slavery. The Commandant doesn’t even allow them to have names, and this dehumanizing element could be discussed fully by a group.
Reviewed by Beth K.