An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
Rating: 4/5 stars
Synopsis: After her brother is arrested and their grandparents killed, Laia will do anything to rescue him. In desperation she turns to the Resistance, a group working to overthrow the Martial Empire that conquered their people, the Scholars, centuries ago. The Resistance agrees to help her on condition that she turn spy for them and pretend to be the slave of the commandant of the military academy that trains Masks, the deadly assassins of the empire.
Elias is training to become a Mask, but he hates the future he faces and plans to run away the day after graduation when people will least expect it. However, the emperor of the Martial Empire is aging and childless, and come graduation Elias finds himself selected to participate in a competition that will name the new emperor. And an oracle tells him that if he runs, he will never be free of the empire. Competing is the only way for him to escape.
As a reader: The novel is told in alternating first person POV, which I found jarring at first and though I eventually got used to it, Tahir’s penchant for ending scenes at cliffhangers and switching to the other point of view got annoying. The novel is fast-paced and hard to put down, the world is vivid and well developed (and based on the Roman Empire!), and Laia and Elias both have very compelling stories.
The book heartily embraces YA tropes, including the time-honored love triangle. BUT WAIT, because it’s dual POV, there are TWO love triangles. It’s like a love trapezoid, and both of the other love interests are clearly terrible matches (when Laia’s first love interest is introduced he’s a grade A jackass, and then she comments on how close his body is to hers as he’s being a jackass and I knew – he’s the guy she likes but doesn’t end up with because it would be a terrible thing for her to end up with him). Meanwhile Laia and Elias are interested in each other but a Mask could never have a relationship with a slave, it would never work. (Except that he’s totally planning to run away and not be a Mask, and she’s not really a slave…) However, it is never obvious how they will find their way to each other and ditch these other crappy high schoolish romances, so it works.
Following in the tradition of Emily seems to only read books that involve sexual violence, this society has a strong rape culture. From the beginning, Laia is under frequent threat of rape, and it does culminate in a rape attempt that remains in her point of view for about a page too long. It was obvious what was happening, the tension was already built, so showing another page of gruesome violence felt unnecessary.
That is my biggest complaint about this otherwise enjoyable novel, and why I gave it 4 stars instead of 5. An Ember in the Ashes is extremely violent, and while the violence works with the world and the rape culture felt very real and was generally well handled, certain violent scenes last longer than necessary. When surrounded by scenes with the protagonists’ raging hormones, the violence reads like torture porn. For example while Laia is fighting a would-be rapist, Elias is having fighting-as-foreplay with his other love interest. We cut from Laia being beaten nearly unconscious to Other-Love-Interest straddling Elias and their kiss is interrupted by Laia’s scream. It would have been dramatic, it would have been gripping, but I was still reeling from the graphic violence so instead it felt icky.
As a writer: I really admire what Tahir did with this novel. It is well structured and paced, she heartily embraces tropes but makes them feel new, and her characters feel like real people, down to their very real flaws. In particular, Elias is somewhat (and sometimes very) unlikeable but still sympathetic with compelling conflict, which I appreciated. That is a difficult balance to strike and something I struggle with in my own writing. He is a character struggling to hide his true beliefs and desires in a hostile environment, which naturally lends itself to sometimes doing despicable things. This is the kind of novel I would love to write, just making a couple particular scenes end sooner.