“An Ember in the Ashes” by Sabaa Tahir


So, it’s been almost a month since my last post, which I’ll probably talk about in a post later this week. But first I want to talk about this book I read yesterday. It’s the debut novel, and first in a series, by author Sabaa Tahir and it is everything. I saw it in a post about diverse fantasy on Tumblr, and the description of Ancient Rome inspired fantasy made me sit up and pay attention right quick! So I requested it from the library and yesterday sat down to read it.

Now, if you know me, or look at my lists of favorite books, you know I don’t enjoy “dark” or “gritty” fantasy much at all. I’m kind of delicate, and tend not to handle it well. I need humor and shenanigans and a certain general tone of hope. I’m not into post-apocalyptic stuff or modern gritty stuff or whatever. But An Ember in the Ashes is the exception. I saw, almost immediately (in the very first two chapters in fact) when the world was being introduced that this was going to be one of those slightly darker fantasy worlds full of pain and struggle. People were killed, others carted off to jails, and characters forced to flee for their lives, all within the first chapter.

I considered putting this book down, I really did. But I just needed to read one more chapter. And then another. And then I was halfway through the book and I had to go back again after toddler-bedtime because I had to find out. I was captured by the characters, and the intensity of the struggle in the story, and voices of the two point-of-view characters, Laia and Elias. The story is told in their alternating voices, and having both sides of the story is it’s own delightful magic.

Elias is a perfectly nice character, and I was captivated by his chapters quite nicely. But Laia was really the character who captured my heart. Because you see, she was full of self-doubt about her own courage, and actually was a little cowardly. She starts out afraid, and runs away from trouble, and I related to her struggle to push past her fears to stand up for the people she loved and take pain and torture to save them. I’m a pretty big coward, but I’ve been getting braver, little by little, over the years (mainly brought on by motherhood) so Laia’s character arc resonated hard with me, despite the fact that I’ve never been in fear for my life or the lives of (most of) my family like she was. Still, I loved her, and I was willing to keep following her story no matter how distressing, dark, or painful the twists became.

Did I mention that this book contains not one, not two, but a multitude of POC characters? Because it does, and the point-of-view characters are both POC. It also deals with themes of colonization and oppression and revolution which seemed particularly relevant given recent events. Not all of the ruling class of colonizers are evil bastards, and the revolutionary fighters are not all unalloyed good guys out to better their people’s lives. Laia and Elias come at the problem from both sides, and watching them both come to terms with the complexities of such things is part of the brilliance of Tahir’s world.

I also want to make note, for the SFF writers out there, that Tahir’s world is dark and gritty and characters are tortured physically and psychologically both on-screen and off. Rape is a daily threat for the slave-girls, and even for the female soldier character, Helene. But never, not once, not even a little, is the rape on screen, gratuitous, or inserted for titillation or male-character growth. Most of the rape happens in the past, and threats in the present are mainly thwarted. The one male character who is concerned about the rape of his female co-characters (Elias) is not forced to stand by and watch is friends raped, nor do we dwell only in his fear of the possibility. We see Laia’s fear constantly, and we even get a taste of Helene’s fear when she opens up to Elias regarding a particularly nasty soldier threatening her.

Finally, a few thoughts on the writing. Debut novels are usually not a writer’s best work of their lifetime, because of course writing is an art perfected over time, so the longer one writes, the better one gets. Writers, like fine wine and cheese, get better at their craft as they age, not worse (to a point of course). If An Ember in the Ashes is any indication of ability, Ms Tahir is going to be a powerhouse in fantasy by the time she hits her stride. The writing was smooth and seamless, really a thing of beauty. I was well over 200 pages in before I even realized it was written in present tense (a tense I usually find clunky and forced), and as I said above the prose pulled me along through the story despite my usual lack of taste for such things. It was immediate, visceral, and intense throughout, even during the (very) occasional bit of quiet happiness.

I would highly recommend this YA Fantasy, and am personally eagerly looking forward to the next novel in 2016, because I need to know what happens to Elias and Laia next dammit!

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