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.