EXPeriencing ‘An Ember in the Ashes’ by Sabaa Tahir

Cover image via.

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.

EXPeriencing ‘Uprooted’ by Naomi Novik

Cover image via.

Who doesn’t love a good, mindless Buzzfeed quiz? At worst it’ll eat up a few minutes as you’re waiting for your Starbucks order. At best, you’ll get a killer book suggestion.

It was through a Buzzfeed quiz that I discovered Uprooted by Naomi Novik. It was something like, “Pretend to Write a Book and We’ll Tell You What Book You Should Read Next.” (I can’t find the exact quiz, but here’s one based on a book you’ve liked, and here’s one based on your favorite emoji.) The quiz suggested Uprooted and the blurb looked interesting enough for me to look it up on Goodreads. The Goodreads rating was pretty incredible: 4.1/5 stars and more than 69,000 ratings. Anything over 3.5 is usually worth checking out, and with that many ratings, I immediately added Uprooted to my To Read list.

A quick visit to the library resulted in a stack of books, including Uprooted. After reading Maus I and Maus II, I was definitely in need of a fantasy/fairy tale to lighten things up.

I dove into Uprooted, and didn’t want to climb out until I was done with the last page. I couldn’t put this book down. It was almost to Harry Potter levels of immersion. But, not from the first page.

It actually starts out pretty generic: clumsy girl lives in small village surrounded by enchanted wood. Wizard is expected to claim perfect girl (not main character) for 10-year servitude. Doesn’t. Chooses main character. Hijinks ensue.

The important part of this generic description is the “starts” part. The above description constitutes just the first two chapters, 38 pages total. It’s worth the payoff to get through. You soon discover, if you haven’t guessed by the end of Chapter One, that the main character, Agnieszka, is a witch herself, which is why the wizard chooses her. Cue another chapter of Agnieszka not realizing she’s a witch, and you’ve gotten past all the truly “generic” content of the book.

~400 pages of the true story follow: the conflict with the Wood. This evil Wood steals people from the valley to expand its territory and corrupt the humans. And Agnieszka wants to stop it from devouring her family, her village, and everyone she’s ever known.

Cue adventure, which include a desperate prince, some court intrigue, and magic magic and more magic. The base magic is familiar if you’re the role-playing sort, but Agnieszka’s breed throws everyone for a loop. She makes magic her own, not how any of the other wizards want it to be.

The depth of the story sucks you in until you finish the last page. It spans a kingdom and 10,000 years. Novik’s writing is beautiful, particularly her simile descriptions. She describes unrelatable situations in a relatable way, while keeping Agnieszka’s personality in tact.

If you like fantasy novels and fairy tales and want to dive into a new story that treads just off the familiar track, I highly suggest Uprooted.

A Buzzfeed suggestion is one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read in years. A+, Buzzfeed. A+.

EXPeriencing Mercedes Lackey’s Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms

Cover image via this review site that had a good, high-quality version. Never has it been more true than this series, but don’t judge this book by its cover. Mostly because nothing that’s happening on the cover has anything to do with the story, nor do the people even look like the characters.

Fantasy novels are my happy place. No matter what sub-genre they fall in (YA, fairy tale, high fantasy, modern), they always comfort me and transport me immediately to their world. If I just want to sink into something familiar–even if it’s a completely new world–it’s gotta have a good love story and there’s gotta be some kind of magic. Bonus points for realism even when everything’s fantastical. Extra bonus points for strong female protagonists. Give me someone to root for, give me a couple good kisses, and I’m a happy camper.

In high school, I had a Thing for faeries and fairy tales. A Big Thing. I loved them. I had just a few too many faerie statuettes and knick-knacks, and fairy tales were all I read for a while. I couldn’t wait to get to Ball State and join the Honors College so I could take their fairy tale class. Although I never did end up taking that class, and my obsession with faeries and their tales waned, I’ll still devour a good retold fairy tale.

One of the series I discovered in high school was Mercedes Lackey’s Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms collection. Mercedes Lackey, of course, is one of the most well-known fantasy authors out there. Case in point, her bibliography has its own Wikipedia page separate from her author page. I haven’t read nearly as many of her books as my best friend has. She’s probably read most of the over 100 novels Lackey has written, to be honest. When we were in high school, I remember her telling me about the second novel in this series, One Good Knight, and I picked it up. I think it’s the only novel in a series I’ve ever read out of order, but I soon fixed that by picking up the first book in the series, The Fairy Godmother. Both are very good.

The premise of these tales are that the lives of the kingdoms’ inhabitants are dictated by The Tradition. Traditional tales we all know–Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty–are tales everyone in the kingdoms know, too. And since the stories have been told so many times, The Tradition forces them to keep playing out in real life again and again. For instance, in the first book of the series, the main character Elena should become a Cinderella. Her father dies and she’s in the clutches of her wicked step-mother and step-sisters. But there’s a problem. While The Tradition is trying to make Cinderella happen, Prince Charming is only a toddler. Not exactly compatible with the teenage Elena. So she takes charge of her fate by becoming a Fairy Godmother, a benevolent overseer in the kingdoms who uses The Tradition to help make sure the not-so-great outcomes of some of the Traditional tales don’t come to fruition, while simultaneously helping the good ones work. It’s a really fun twist on the tales we’ve all heard 18,000 times in 18,000 different ways. By acknowledging that yes, they do keep happening, Lackey is able to build a whole world out of these tales in a fresh way.

Until just recently, I had only read the first four books in the series, and I read them all in high school. I loved The Fairy Godmother and One Good Knight. The third book in the series, Fortune’s Fool, I remember literally nothing about. I just read the synopsis and only one scene came to memory. Usually I remember a little more about books, but having read this in high school, I’m not surprised it slipped my mind. The fourth book in the series, The Snow Queen, I remember somewhat, but mostly what I remember is that I really wasn’t a fan of it. It just felt forced and rushed, and I remember being glad it was over with.

If you’re thinking I’m not doing a great job convincing you this is a good series, let me bring it back from high school days. While at Barnes and Noble a couple weeks ago, I realized there are two more books out in the Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms collection now: The Sleeping Beauty and Beauty and the Werewolf. I picked up The Sleeping Beauty and just finished it a couple days ago.

As it should be with all fantasy novels, I sunk right in. Is The Sleeping Beauty the best fantasy novel I’ve ever read? Nah. But it had everything I wanted for a quick, entertaining adventure. The premise is that The Tradition is trying to make two tales of sleeping princesses happen at the same time: Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. This wealthy kingdom’s Godmother, Lily, has had her hands full for centuries trying to keep war at bay, and now on top of it, she has to help save Princess Rosamund from seven evil dwarves, keep her from getting murdered, and help find her a suitable husband so the five surrounding kingdoms don’t launch a massive attack. The solution to the last problem is to host a grand tournament of princes to win the princess’s hand and help rule the kingdom. It may sound a bit on the sexist side–like The Bachelor or The Bachelorette but, you know, Traditional–but Lackey does a good job of acknowledging and allowing her characters to acknowledge the implications of the tournament and what it means for Rosa as Traditional Princess but also Strong Female.

Lily and Rosa are intriguing characters who make a great team, if not particularly in depth. The couple of princes who show up and throw some wrenches in the Sleeping plots–for good and bad–also make a good team, and you of course end up rooting for the right prince. It’s also a pretty funny novel, which Lackey states at the beginning is something she’s going for. When you first meet the one of the princes, Siegfried, he’s talking to a bird:

“So, this Kingdom is rich?” he asked his companion, a little, brown, nondescript bird. Heroes didn’t usually have any interest in birds, and the names and categorization of them were generally limited in a Hero’s education to “good to eat,” “not good to eat,” and “singing while I have a hangover, kill it with a rock.”

I was also reminded that the unicorns in Lackey’s novels are… vapid, to say the least. The particular unicorn that ends up showing up in this novel, Luna, can’t say her L’s or R’s, so when she’s trying to convince the various heroes she can be of some use, it’s heartwarming, yet highly amusing:

“Luna, we’re going into danger,” he said, as gently as he could. “We don–“

“I know!” said the unicorn, stamping one hoof impatiently in the dead leaves. “I aweady know that! I’m coming wif you!”

The humor adds some welcome chuckles to the adventure.

While a bit predictable in outcome, The Sleeping Beauty is satisfying, which is sometimes just what I want. I love being caught off guard by a love story not going as planned, or someone dying who you desperately wanted to see live happily ever after. But, not always. Sometimes you want a fun adventure, some magic, some twists and turns (or just a couple of gentle bends), and a happily ever after. That’s what you get with The Sleeping Beauty, and it was well worth diving back into this world to experience.