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.