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