EXPeriencing ‘An Ember in the Ashes’ by Sabaa Tahir

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You know when you read a new Harry Potter book for the first time and you just couldn’t stop reading? All the way through the night, you kept turning pages because you just had to find out what happened next. Rarely did a chapter end where you thought, Yeah, I can put the bookmark in and go to sleep now. No, you read until the sun came up and then went for a walk in your neighborhood before even the golfers were awake.

Okay, maybe that’s just me.

That inability to put the book down, though, and turning page after page no matter what the clock reads is exactly what happened when I read Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes. I started the book Saturday afternoon and finished it Tuesday night/Wednesday morning at 1 a.m. I. Was. Hooked.

An Ember in the Ashes is a young adult fantasy novel—like all the best books are—and is set in the fictional Martial Empire. This empire is located in the ancient desert kingdom of the Scholars who were conquered by a Roman-esque emperor 500 years before.

The story follows two protagonists: Laia, the Scholar slave, and Elias, the Martial soldier-assassin. As the back of the book says, “Elias and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.” I love these kinds of stories. Each chapter switches back and forth from Laia to Elias. Following their stories to see when they would meet and when their paths would cross again is one of the big reasons I kept turning page after page.

It helps that Laia and Elias are also really compelling characters. Laia, a free woman until her grandparents are murdered and her brother taken by a Martial Mask, seeks out the Scholar Resistance to save her brother. Elias is a Mask, the most talented one at Blackcliff Academy, and he hates it. When the Trials to choose a new emperor are called, Elias participates reluctantly, and Laia is sent as a slave to spy on Blackcliff for the Resistance. I would say “hijinks ensue,” but that casts it in way too light a tone. For instance, the Trials. Think the Tri-Wizard Tournament, but if Harry had to make sure Ron drowned faster than Hermione, Cho Chang, and Gabrielle Delacour. It is brutal.

But Laia and Elias are not the only characters, of course. All the characters, from Resistance fighters to Blackcliff students to slaves, are unique with their own motives and fears and desires, and play vital roles in Elias and Laia’s stories.

Tahir paints a brilliant world full of life and death and beauty and pain. World-building is something I love most about fantasy. Does it read true, even though there is magic or mystical creatures? Do I feel like I’m there, or just like I’m watching it on a far-away screen? How keenly do I feel the characters’ emotions? I can sum up Tahir’s Empire in a world: vibrant. I was there, it was real, and I didn’t want to leave.

I know not everyone is a YA fan. I get that it’s just not up everyone’s alley. But if you’re looking for a fantasy novel set far away from yet another rehashed England/France/Western Europe location, An Ember in the Ashes is worth the read. You’ll knock it out in a few days, have a new appreciation for diverse fantasy, and be dying to read the next one. I know I am.

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EXPeriencing ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker

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Banned books, particularly those by women of color, always seem to be the most beautiful.

I have a long list of books to read on my Goodreads account, and when I was making my 2017 reading challenge, I decided it was high time I made a dent on that list. As I was scrolling through, I saw The Color Purple and I knew I had to make that one of my first reads of the year.

I’m so glad I did.

My previous knowledge about The Color Purple came from watching the 1985 movie version with Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Danny Glover. Watching it as a kid in the ’90s meant I didn’t quite understand what was happening other than Whoopi Goldberg’s character had a rough life and Danny Glover’s character wasn’t very nice.

Fast-forward 20+ years, and I’ve discovered there’s so much more to The Color Purple than I ever imagined.

The story is told in letters, mostly by Celie. The letters begin when she’s 14 and span her whole life. First they’re written to God, then to her sister Nettie. They depict an arduous life on sharecropper farms in the south. And Celie suffers. She is abused—physically, verbally, and emotionally—by her father, her husband, and the woman her husband loves. Through her letters, Celie recounts her relationships with her family and her friends in their small community, and how those relationships bloom and change throughout her life. Celie begins the novel as a down-trodden individual, but grows into a strong, confident woman. The transformation is slow over the decades, but every new letter reveals a new facet to Celie that we didn’t previously know.

I love how The Color Purple is written: in letters in Celie’s dialect. I’m sure reading dialect isn’t everyone’s favorite, but when it’s done well, as Alice Walker has done in The Color Purple, it tells a story like no one else could. It has to be Celie’s voice in her letters, and no proper grammar is going to get that job done.

The Color Purple is the second book by a black woman I have read in the past three months. In 2016, I read a whopping one book written by a black author. As an addendum to my 24-book reading challenge for 2017, I’m going to ensure that at least half of those books are written by women and men of color. Good books shouldn’t be dependent on the author’s ethnicity, but when all the books you read are by white people, it’s probably time to broaden your horizons. #WeNeedDiverseBooks isn’t just for children and young adults. Particularly as we head into this new US administration, it’s time to broaden our horizons and read books we normally wouldn’t by people with different backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions than us.

You may learn a thing or two.

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” —Alice Walker, The Color Purple