An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, review by Melissa Fox
Countries have been conquering other countries since the dawn of time, it seems. And that's a pretty standard theme, especially in speculative fiction. So it takes something particularly special to make a book about a conquered country and the people there -- set in an alternative world, with just the slightest bit of magic -- stand out. Ember in the Ashes is just that book.
The conquerors are the Martials, who are exactly what they sound like: militaristic, brutal, merciless. The conquered people are the Scholars, who are intellectual, peaceful, and thoroughly beaten. This is the world that Laia has grown up in. She lives with her brother and grandparents, after her parents were betrayed and killed as part of the resistance, flying under the radar of the Martials. Until they don't anymore: Masks, the people behind the Martials' brutality, come and take Laia's brother and kill her grandparents. She barely gets away.
But Tahir doesn't just give us the Scholar side of the story. Elias has grown up at Blackcliff, the military school that trains Masks. An unwanted bastard son of Blackcliff's Commander, he spent the years before he turned six with the Tribal people in the desert. Then the Augurs -- the mystic, immortal Martial prophets -- came for him and thrust him into a kill-or-be-killed world. Elias survived only with the help of the sole girl at the school, Helene. He's never quite fit in with the brutal culture of the school, and on the eve of his desertion, he's pulled into a final competition: that to replace the emperor.
It's told in alternating chapters, and while Elias and Laia's separate stories do eventually merge, they develop as their own separate characters. Tahir masterfully makes both sides complex, neither wholly good or wholly evil. It's a brutal, violent, dark story, one that I think is most easily compared to *The Game of Thrones*. But it's one that will draw readers in, holding them there until the story is finished. My only complaint about the book is that there are unresolved issues, and so there will have to be, at the very least, a sequel.
But that is a trivial complaint in the wake of such a masterful book.