Monday, November 17, 2014

Review: An Ember in the Ashes (April 2015)

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
With An Ember in the Ashes, I let myself do the thing I never let myself do, which is have high expectations before going into a book. It's usually a mistake, and I usually end up resenting the people who give me those high expectations when the book inevitably does not live up to the hype.
But this one. This one.
"You're not like other books," I said to it, because unlike with girls, that is actually a compliment to books.
"I know," it replied.

In her debut novel (debut novel!??), Sabaa Tahir tackles a lot of things. Race, class, slavery, war, gender, family, magic, and a little bit of romance. It takes place in Serra, a Middle Eastern-esque country divided between the conquering Martials and the conquered Scholars, which bear a remarkable likeness to the Spartans and the Athenians. Laia and her family are Scholars, eking out a modest and repressed existence among what is left of their people, while Elias is a Martial soldier who has been training at the military school Blackcliff since he was about eight years old. That's right, these people aren't messing around.

When a Mask (a graduated Blackcliff student and military officer) comes to Laia's home, kills her grandparents and takes her brother, she sets out to find the Resistance—the group of rebel Scholars who have been working for years to take the country back from the Martials—and convince them to help her find her brother, who may already be dead. But of course, nobody in this world does anything for free, and in exchange for their help, Laia must infiltrate Blackcliff in the most dangerous way possible: being a slave for the ruthless Commandant, who's been known to disfigure slaves immediately and kill them after about two weeks.

It's there that she meets Elias, of course, but what I loved about this book is that the two of them have their own distinct stories going on, and while meeting each other certainly affects those stories, it doesn't drive them. The plot does not fall into the black hole of clandestine hookups and constant excuses for the main characters to be together; it allows their relationship to take a backseat to their story. Laia has a brother to save and Elias has a competition to not-win and they both have a few shady characters to figure out. There are hints that the two of them have entwined fates, but the book is written in first-person present tense for a reason: you can look to the future if you want, but sometimes the now takes precedent. Laia and Elias are both suspicious of the Augurs who insist on waxing didactic about things to come, and their refusal to stray toward those enigmatic storylines is, at this point, what will keep readers reading.

The world of An Ember in the Ashes is unique but simple— we are already familiar with the concept of a scholar state and a military state, and even a world where those two states are at war. By adding its own names, magic, and mythology, it designates itself as high fantasy, and does so more naturally and more successfully than others because every element is so organic to the setting. The magic feels Middle Eastern; the legends sound Middle Eastern. It's hard to imagine this world without them.

The setting provides a foundation for the race and class politics that are inextricable from the story— the dynamic being that race has essentially no bearing on class. How refreshing it is to see the "lower," i.e. conquered class comprised of both darker-skinned, darker haired people and fair-skinned, redheaded or blonde people. Likewise to see the Commandant with fair skin and blonde hair, but one of her slaves with the same. I can't wait to see more of this in both this series and YA in general, the way we have already seen some of the female gender role obliteration that Tahir has given us. [Helene and the Commandant are powerful women in the military, one of whom is constantly underestimated by everyone around her, and the other who has only ever been underestimated by her father. But Strong Female Characters are not the only kind of female characters in this story—Laia herself is no warrior. She believes herself weak, has insecurities and makes mistakes, but she is compelling because despite this, she keeps trying. By the end of the novel, she has discovered her own ability to grow into whoever she wants to be, and it's honestly one of the most empowering reading experiences I've ever had.]

Would I have liked to see more male gender role obliteration? Yes. Other than Darin being the one in need of rescue by his little sister, men aren't really presented as being capable of weakness. All of the men in the book are warriors, rebels or swordsmiths, none slaves or kitchen workers. Possibly the closest it came was Zak, the reluctant, softhearted warrior living in his brother's shadow, or Leander, who's always obsessing over his fiancé. But they are both still warriors. Along with that could maybe have been the threat of rape to men, too; the book certainly doesn't shy away from the threat of rape to a slave or even a female soldier in a school full of male soldiers, but why couldn't the Commandant's cruelty have extended to men weaker than her, too*? Why did the boys never have to be afraid of a woman more powerful than them? Rape is not a crime committed exclusively by men with female victims, and while I appreciate the look at what it's like for these women (especially as it reflects so many social orders in the real world), the book could have been a little more empathetic and progressive in that respect. Yes all women, but not just women.

*Though it is fantastic that rape is not portrayed as the only or even the worst thing that could happen to a woman—the Commandant leaves people with physical scars that will affect their entire lives. The women who are victims are not always victims because they have ladyparts.

But this is only the first book in the series, and the next book promises to bring new things. Along with the development of Elias and Laia's relationship (and the changes in their relationships with Helene and Keenan), which has been believable and perfectly-paced, it's already set up the primary goal and destination for the next book. And I am so, so looking forward to it.

Recommended for: EVERYONE, specifically fans of Legend by Marie Lu, Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski

Friday, November 14, 2014

Review: In the Afterlight

Okay, I have a lot of reviews to write.
I'll start with In the Afterlight, because someone actually asked me for this one.

When I finished Never Fade, I thought I was going to die before the final book in the series came out. Like, what even was that ending? How can you do that? Also: never trust an e-reader, because they fool you into thinking there are more pages when THERE ARE NOT.

But I didn't reread Never Fade before starting In the Afterlight, and to be honest I was confused to the point of boredom for the first 30 pages or so. Strangely, I didn't really remember a thing that any of the characters were talking about, or why they were doing the things they were doing, or even where they were. A little bit of a brush-up would have been nice— I'm not talking the annoying summaries that Vampire Academy has in every book, but leave me some crumbs, maybe?

Once it got going, though... nope, I was still bored. Ha! You thought I was going to say something nice! I started to figure out where and why and all those types of questions, but I still wanted to find out when. As in, when is something actually going to happen? The whole middle half of the book (from the 25% mark to the 75% mark) is planning. Organizing, strategizing, planning and back-up-planning. There are a few times where the characters have quiet moments to shine, which were the moments I was living for, but I could have done with about 100 fewer pages of the constant worrying about doing things without actually doing things.

And Liam. I realize that Liam is a little too well-natured and optimistic for his own good, but I really didn't need it drilled into my head repeatedly by Cole and Ruby, who insisted on treating him like a child. Ruby knew perfectly well that he was capable of leading people and accomplishing pretty much whatever he wanted to accomplish, but she wouldn't let him in on any of her godforsaken planning because— what? They couldn't have used someone whose primary concern was helping other people, rather than exacting revenge or taking down the entire psi camp system? I don't buy it. Maybe Cole had a reason for not trusting Liam with the whole revolution thing— he hasn't seen Liam in action, doesn't know what he's been through or what he's capable of, but at the same time he never gave him a chance. It was like:
COLE: Okay, fine, prove yourself, little bro.
LIAM: Great! I really think that—
COLE: LOL no you don't. You don't think. And also you're wrong, and you should leave.
LIAM: But—
COLE: Hey, I gave you a chance. You blew it. You're not ready for this. While you've been messing around, running for your life and learning to survive and hiding from people who would institutionalize and torture you, I've been training in a professional facility of rebels and brooding. I do a lot of brooding, bro. Also speeches. So I think I know a thing or two about who is ready and who is not, and also I was totally elected into this position and did not just take it for myself without input from anyone else.
LIAM: I definitely call shenanigans.

My shining lights through the dark days of underground living were Chubs (god, I love Chubs and his "big Chubsie mouth") and Vida and especially Zu. Zu saved the entire book the moment she [spoiler alert] opened her mouth. She somehow managed to be a reminder of each of the original characters' value as humans, while actually being a whole person unto herself. I couldn't get enough of that girl or her friendship with Vida.

Once things got moving, the book was sincerely great. Ruby's character development made me finally 100% love her, and Liam finally had his moment to shine (sorry Cole had to be sacrificed in the name of Liam getting a chance to prove himself, but I'm actually okay with it). The rest was moving but never preachy, compelling but never shallow, and that ending. That ending was absolutely perfect. Strangely, the last sentences of both the book itself and the acknowledgements made me cry. God, I'm so lame.
"And the open road rolled out in front of us."
This was my favorite kind of ending, which, if you've read my series-finale reviews before, you know is the bittersweet, somewhat open kind, like Requiem. Ruby mentions that Liam will go back to North Carolina and she'll go back to Virginia and they'll have to find a way to make it work, but any discerning reader will notice that a) Those two states are right next to each other, and b) They will both be 18 soon and can pretty much live wherever they want. The separation isn't permanent, but it's what needs to happen for now, because they finally have their parents back. And that's more than okay. So until they reenter their former lives with their families, they're going to reenter a more recent former life, but one with a sense of peace: driving, together, with no destination in mind.

I promise to do reviews of Blue Lily, Lily Blue (which I read almost 2 months ago and still haven't reviewed because I basically just want to write the word "perfect" over and over), and The Retribution of Mara Dyer. I'm writing that down so that I can't slack off.