An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir definitely falls into the LOVED-IT-AND-WISH-I ALREADY-HAD-THE-COMPLETE-SERIES-SO-I-CAN-BINGE-READ-THEM category. Seriously, dear readers, you should buy this book!
Here’s a rundown of the plot:
In a world where Scholars are ruled by the strength and might of the Martials, Laia and Elias are at two different ends of the spectrum.
After the arrest of her brother, Laia, a seventeen-year-old Scholar, searches for the Resistance to help rescue him. Using her parents’ names, two of the greatest leaders of the Resistance, to gain entry, she is given a bargain: Spy on the Commandant, a truly terrible and horrific woman who is in charge of Blackcliff, a school for an elite legion of soldiers called the Masks. Upon agreeing, she is thrust into slavery at Blackcliff with dangers and monsters, both literal and figurative, awaiting her at every corner.
At Blackcliff, Laia becomes “Slave Girl,” her identity stolen from her and the freedom that she enjoyed most of her life lost. She faces beatings and torture from both the largely male student body and from the Commandant herself.
While Laia navigates Blackcliff, she comes across the top student, Elias Veturius, who is in a different sort of enslavement to the Empire and soon to graduate as a full-fledged elite soldier. Like Laia, Elias was given little choice as to his future since he was taken from his loving adoptive family when he was six and forced into the leagues of the Masks and Blackcliff. Throughout his tenure at Blackcliff, Elias has faced whippings, battles, betrayals, and harsh judgement and punishment from the Commandant, his mother who abandoned Elias as a baby in the desert. Umm, yeah, this woman, Elias’s mother, is truly terrible and scary.
When Laia and Elias meet for the first time, they both are very aware of the other, Laia because of her fear of Masks and Elias because of Laia’s proud demeanor and beauty, which is not usually found in a slave at Blackcliff due to the Commandant’s tendency to disfigure slaves close to their arrival at the school. Their fates, of course, are irrevocably intertwined, though neither are aware of anything but a fierce attraction that seems wrong to both of them. Sabaa Tahir wonderfully connects these two seemingly disparate characters in ways that intrigue the reader and make us want more of them together.
Both Elias and Laia have separate identity crises. Laia believes she is a coward because she was unable to save her brother and focuses on her fears through much of the book. Like Laia, Elias faces his own fears, which lie in his disgust of the Martials, the Masks, and his mother. He dreads becoming a master of death as a Mask, like his heartless mother, and is planning his escape, a seemingly impossible task, at the beginning of the book. This, of course, gets put on hold, but the idea of escaping Blackcliff becomes an obsession to both Elias and Laia, who also chose to infiltrate Blackcliff and could leave with the Resistance.
Self-discovery is a major theme within this novel, and both characters reach the realizations that while their fears are founded, they should focus on what they can do, rather than what they can’t. By the end of the book, both characters have decided who they are, finding their inner-strengths. Laia realizes that her fears cannot control her life, and Elias discovers that although his skills as a Mask will always be a part of him, he will never become his mother.
This book is a fantasy, but early on, both characters highly doubt the existence of magical creatures. Tahir scatters jinn, efrits, and ghuls throughout the world she has created, as well as a mysterious order of Augurs who help to drive much of the action within the plot. The Augurs are the religious sect of the Martials and can foresee events, along with being able to understand deep wants and desires of anyone. Cain states to Laia that the Augurs “are, all of us, guilty” (401), calling himself and the rest “an error, a mistake” (401). Their purpose, as I see it, seems to be to right the wrongs of the world at this particular time in the Empire, and they need Elias and Laia to help accomplish this goal.
At the very end of An Ember in the Ashes, the Augur Cain tells Laia that she is:
“Full of life and dark and strength and spirit. You will burn, for you are an ember in the ashes. That is your destiny. Being a Resistance spy–that is the smallest part of you. That is nothing.” (400-401)
Earlier in the story, he tells Elias that:
“You are an ember in the ashes, Elias Veturius. You will spark and burn, ravage and destroy….You have a chance at greatness you cannot conceive. You have a chance at true freedom–of body and soul.” (65)
Looking at these two quotes, I can’t wait to see more of the “spark” and “burn” of Laia and Elias’s interconnected destiny to help correct the subjugation of both the Scholars and Martials. And it’s interesting to think that when Cain say “that is the smallest part of you” to Laia, he is really speaking about both Laia and Elias. They both have a destiny that the Augurs want fulfilled, and this book merely introduces us to the smallest part of that destiny. (Way to set up for the next book, Tahir!)
While we don’t know exactly what will happened to these two characters, I think we can conclude that they are necessary in the machinations and manipulations of the Augurs. And there should be no doubt that one part of the end-game is to defeat Elias mother, the Commandant, who is in league with the darkness itself.
My lovelies, I think that this book is also about the choices these characters make–deciding between meeting expectations or following their own desires–and whether or not they can overcome their fears for a greater good. This book is awesome, and Tahir has created a truly intricate story that makes you see the varying perspectives of the Empire. We root for both Elias and Laia to overcome their struggles and find a path that will allow them to define themselves and each other as more than just Scholar and Mask.
Well, I hope, my dears, that you will pick up this book and let me know what you think. What do you predict for the next book, A Torch Against the Night, which is out August 30, 2016?
And, as always, enjoy your reading!