An Ember in the Ashes

Sabaa Tahir is one of my new favorite authors! Ember in the Ashes is Sabaa Tahir’s first book. She is an experienced writer though; she worked for the Washington Post right after University, and it shows. Her writing is tight, as in no wasted words. This book is a YA book and yet won a People’s Choice award for the Fantasy category. It is also a New York Times Best Seller.

An Ember in the Ashes
by Sabaa Tahir

The Martial Empire is a massive country that conquered the Scholar lands and many others long ago, enslaving many of the conquered people. Their rule is absolute and brutal.

Laia’s parents were the leaders of the most successful scholar rebellion group in ages, until they were betrayed by one of their own. Years later Laia has grown up with her brother and her grandparents. Her grandparents are killed and her brother taken to be tortured for information by the Martial Empire. Her brother is now her only living family, and she must save him. She seeks out the rebellion group for help. They ask her to work for and spy on the most dangerous woman in the Martial Empire. The woman with a particular gift for ferreting out and killing spies.

Elias is one of the best soldiers in the Martial Empire. He hates everything the empire represents. He hates the violence, the murder, the sabotage, the cruelty, the injustice, and the brutality. He longs to be free. He is contemplating and has planned to run away. He hasn’t even told his best friend, Helene, that he plans to escape. She is too loyal. He knows escape and freedom is not simple, but he doesn’t know how hard it actually is to find true freedom. Elias and Helene face trials and horrors they could not imagine. They face danger from friends, from long-time enemies, and from sources thought gone long ago. Worst of all they face impossible choices.

The description of the Roman-like setting is stunning! You can almost feel the desert sand when she describes it. The writing of this novel is unique. The main character, Laia, is beautifully written with internal and external conflict right from the start. This is not a read for the faint of heart. My heart nearly stopped at the choices these characters had to make, at the dangerous situations they were put in, and at the possibility of betrayal around every corner. Tahir is merciless to her characters. This is not a fairytale in which everything is black and white, good vs. evil. There is moral grayness everywhere. So in other words: I LOVE IT!! One of many themes in this story is that there are things worse than death. Another theme is in this trailer for the book.

I was shocked to find that this is actually a HL680 Lexile book! Pleasantly surprised. HL means that it is written to be of high interest but is written with simple vocabulary for easy understandablity. The writing didn’t feel like a HL book, which makes me respect Tahir’s writing ability. Usually HL books feel simple. They sometimes talk down to kids, but not this one. Usually I read books with a kind of ‘teacher filter’ on, knowing that something that is cliche to me as an avid reader for 30+ years is not going to seem cliche to an 11 year old student. I can read this book as an adult, no filter, and still enjoy this story. I don’t believe it would have won an award in an adult category if that were not the case.

The audio version of this is well done. The story is told from two different POVs, Laia and Elias. The audio version is narrated by Fiona Hardingham (Laia) and Steve West (Elias).

Language: no actual cuss words
Violence: yes, torture
Sexual Content: yes, mild
Substance Abuse: no
Overall rating: PG

If You Like…

If you like Hunger Games, there are some similar elements in this novel that you will love. This story is not quite as gritty as what Stephen King writes but it is more gritty than the average YA book, something like what R.A. Salvatore writes in the Legend of Drizzit series.