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.

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EXPeriencing the Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo

Cover image via Read, Write, and Read Some More.

The moral of this blog post is to always listen to book recommendations from your friends who work in publishing. When publishing people personally recommend books, you know they’re good. And my friends were absolutely right about Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy.

In my last blog post, I had just started Siege and Storm, the second book of the trilogy. The trilogy got better with every book. Siege and Storm introduced new characters and the conflict grew more dire. In Ruin and Rising, the finale of the trilogy, the stakes were painfully high, the characters were defeated left and right, and through it all, star-crossed lovers fought their fate.

I recognize that’s a hopelessly vague summary, but when you’re talking about the third book in a trilogy, everything is spoilers. I don’t want to give anything away if you’re going to check out the trilogy—and you should. I read all three books in 15 days total, and the only reason I didn’t read them in one straight sitting is because I had to work.

My favorite thing about this trilogy is that the characters feel so very real. Alina, the main character, grapples with her sun summoning powers, and the weight of saving Ravka is on her shoulders. But she’s also weighed down by love for her best friend Mal, the roguish prince who would marry her for a strong alliance, and the relentless pull to the Darkling whose tyranny is driving Ravka into darkness. No one in the series is perfect, everyone has external and internal battles to fight, and there is loss. So much loss. Of lives, loves, home, alliances, everything. Alina is not perfect, and her side is not winning. All of this makes for such a compelling read that you can’t put the books down. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. You hope it will be a victory… but so often it’s not.

The further I read in the Grisha Trilogy, the more I couldn’t help but compare it to the Hunger Games Trilogy—and the Grisha Trilogy wins. Hands down. Everything that annoyed me about the Hunger Games seemed to be done “right” in the Grisha Trilogy. Katniss wasn’t perfect, of course, but her flaws all seemed to be tied to men. Alina struggles with love, too, but it comes second to her duties as the Sun Summoner. She’s willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to do what’s right for Ravka.

I was annoyed when reading the Hunger Games that there was so much violence, but no cussing, and no sex. Characters were getting ripped apart—literally—but Peeta and Katniss never did more than kiss, and there wasn’t a single cuss word to be found in the books. The Grisha Trilogy feels more real. There is quite a bit of violence, but Ravka is in full-out war. There is some cussing—not as much, perhaps, and real soldiers and young adults, but enough in the right places that it feels natural. And, it’s very clear that some of the characters have and/or have had sex. They’re young adults. That’s what happens when they love each other and they might die. I felt at times that the Hunger Games tries to shield readers from sex and bad words, which is a bizarre juxtaposition to the violence that fills its pages. The Grisha Trilogy builds a real world and shows readers a truthfulness not just of war, but of being a young adult and what it means to love.

I look forward to starting Leigh Bardugo’s new series built in the same world as Ravka, Six of Crows. And if you’ve read any of the Grisha Trilogy, hit me up. I need to talk through my feels with someone.

EXPeriencing Escapism & Inspiration through YA

Cover images via Kirkus and Leigh Bardugo’s website.

The 2016 presidential election concluded nearly a month ago, but I don’t think it’ll ever be behind us. Not when our president elect is tweeting his frustrations at a satire comedy show and upsetting international relations.

That’s why I needed some escapism as we head into the end of the year.

Earlier this fall, in an attempt to save money and stop cluttering my bookshelf (a.k.a, my guest room floor), I got a library card for my local library. The first book I picked up was Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I’d never read it, and it was a beautiful, heartrending book. And as you can imagine, it was not a light read. So as Election Day neared, I wanted to read something light. Something that wouldn’t make me look at the wrongs of our past and fill me with dismay.

I picked up the sequel to the newest series by my favorite young adult author, Libba Bray: Lair of Dreams. As far as not looking at America’s past and feeling shame, fear, and distress, I definitely failed in my choice.

Lair of Dreams, part of the Diviners series, is set in 1920s New York City. The racism and misogyny of the day is enough to make you want to throw things, but Bray’s strong diverse cast of characters helps show the wrongness of those ways–and that there’s hope to overcome it.

Despite the fact that we live 90 years later, those reminders are apparently as relevant as ever.

“America had invented itself. It continued to invent itself as it went along. Sometimes its virtues made it the envy of the world. Sometimes it betrayed the very heart of its ideals. Sometimes the people dispensed with what was difficult or inconvenient to acknowledge. So the good people maintained the illusion of democracy and wrote another hymn to America. They sang loud enough to drown out dissent. They sang loud enough to overpower their own doubts. There were no plaques to commemorate mistakes. But the past didn’t forget. History was haunted by the ghosts of buried crimes, which required periodic exorcisms of truth. Actions had consequences.” —Libba Bray, Lair of Dreams

Thankfully, the mystical elements of Lair of Dreams provided enough escapism that I didn’t feel I was delving into a history lesson for 1927. That’s exactly what I was looking for. The racism and misogyny is certainly present in the novel, but mostly for historical reference. The real conflict comes from ghosts and magic and secret government programs. The conflict and the strong characters drew me in and wrapped me in their magic, and I was happy.

To keep the escapism train going, I finally decided to check out a YA series my publishing friends have been gushing about for years: the Grisha trilogy from Leigh Bardugo. I picked up the first novel, Shadow and Bone, just before Thanksgiving and devoured it in four days. I started the sequel this afternoon and the third book is ready and waiting on my kitchen table.

While Leigh Bardugo’s world is filled with war, it’s also filled with gender equality. That’s Refreshing Element #1. Refreshing Element #2 is that it’s set in a fantasy realm she invented, and it’s not based on Western Europe, but rather Russia. Despite how much Russia has been in the news, Bardugo’s Ravka is completely new and I can process its history without having to think forward to current U.S.-Russia relations.

Refreshing Element #3: Like Bray, Bardugo’s world features a strong female lead, reminding me why I’ve loved YA since I was 12. In today’s world where the most qualified woman in the country can run for president but lose to the least qualified man on Earth, seeing strong young women in action fighting government cover-ups and tyrannical mages gives me hope for women and girls today. If these are the writers and their heroines we have to look up to, I am reassured that our fight over the next four years won’t be in vain.

“The story of America is one that is still being written. Many of the ideological battles we like to think we’ve tucked neatly into a folder called ‘the past’—issues of race, class, gender, sexual identity, civil rights, justice, and just what makes us ‘American’—are very much alive today. For what we do not study and reflect upon, we are in danger of dismissing or forgetting. What we forget, we are often doomed to repeat. Our ghosts, it seems, are always with us, whispering that attention must be paid.” —Libba Bray, Lair of Dreams