Yet another book that I’d heard rave reviews about and was forced to wait until I had time to be devoured by it.
Once again, not disappointed.
‘An Ember in the Ashes’ by Sabaa Tahir is an epic book. It has its occasional flaw, but the strength of the characters and the poetry of the writing is so much I just pushed those issues to the side and kept reading.
The characters are older (19 and 20) and the readership should reflect this. There is torture and an uncomfortable rape culture. But if you can stomach that, then the book is a gem.
Totally awesome bits…
- Narrator changes
- Real, 3D characters
- Intricate world-building
- Diversity and inclusivity
Let’s go through in more detail…
Mixing it up with the Narrators
The POV is exclusively first person, however this book has reminded me of the nail-biting suspense changing narrators can give to a book.
Every chapter, we switch between the POV of Laia and Elias.
Every chapter, we’re left hanging.
Every chapter, we finish with something we absolutely have to read on about, and then have to leave that to go back to the last thing we absolutely had to read on about, and before you can ask ‘why is the house so quiet?’, it’s way late and you’re still up reading and really you should go to bed…
… but you’ll just read to the end of the next chapter…
You get the picture.
Tahir has made really great use of this writing format. It reminds me of the time I picked up a worn copy of Robert Jordan’s ‘The Eye of the World’ while backpacking through Europe. I found an isolated ridgeline halfway up a mountain in Austria, put all plans to leave on hold, and binge-read that thing. It was an awesome experience. And so was this book.
Characters so real you think you know them
Well-executed first person POV always helps you connect with a character, and this book is no exception. They’re classically perfect characters – the best of the best, and the girl with the past. It could have felt over-the-top, but it doesn’t. Sometimes what they manage to get away with is a bit outside my ability to accept, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment.
Can Laia really walk across the middle of the most feared training school in the Empire, following two of the top four Masks, and not be heard by them? When they can sense spooky chicks like the Commandant easier than I smell a fab daal cooking? Would Laia even have thought it worth the risk?
I get the feeling Laia’s got some spooky stuff of her own going on, but if any of that makes her silent she doesn’t know it yet. And nor do we. I felt her narration should have reflected that in this instance. But… small fry… this book was still awesome.
I loved the character arc of Laia. She got bold. She figured out her strengths and what was important to her. She kicked it.
Here, now, he is just Elias and I am just Laia, and we are, both of us, drowning. (p374)
Some people say there is a love quadrangle going on in this book, and I suppose there is. But for me, there is only Elias and Laia. The others are part of the suspense that keeps the book chuffing along.
I feel sorry for Helena, and I distrust Keenan and reckon he’s a patronising dipstick. But I don’t feel they’ve got a snowflake’s chance in hell of actually capturing some real romance. They’re just there to make me worried they might.
World-building with a salute to history and some awesome language
History is stranger than fiction sometimes. Why reinvent a world from scratch when you can borrow bits from our fascinating past?
There’s a lot of Roman stuff melded into this fantasy, the basis for the unique world Tahir creates. It’s great. World-building, for me, is key. Depth and credibility keep you in the world of the book, allow you to imagine different corners of it.
And the descriptive language? I love it.
(Is that why I love the book so much? I think so.)
Check out this beauty from Elias’ POV:
The drumming goes on. The families will have collected the bodies by now. Blackcliff has no graveyard. Among these walls, all that remains of the fallen is the emptiness of where they walked, the silence where their voices rang. (p378)
What a knife-sharp and poignant way to describe the aftermath, to let us know how Elias is feeling, how he sees the Masks he has trained with all these years.
I can think of 10 bazillion more boring ways to have got that across, that would use far more words and mean far less. Bravo Tahir.
A call for inclusivity
I love how the lines blur between the different races in this book as the pages turn. It makes you rethink your perception of the Scholars and the Martials and the Tribes.
Think the Scholars are innocent, gentle people? Ha! Ask a jinn what they think about that.
Laia can’t trust any Martial, but then look at Elias. She has to rethink her stereotypes.
It’s perfect to have a great book like this teaching readers that it’s not about the colour of your skin or your eyes, or who your parents are. It’s about who you let yourself be.
Break down the stereotypes. Start with a fictional world like this one, and then try it out in the real world.
Yep, I totally recommend a read.
Block out a day or so of time, apologise to your family for the late nights that are coming, and read it. 🙂