Book Review: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

an-ember-in-the-ashes-by-sabaa-tahirAn Ember in the Ashes was a surprise. I was looking for (and expected) a fast, easy read that would help get me out of the reading slump I’d been in since breaking my foot in May. I don’t read much YA these days, but this book has gotten a lot of positive attention and I could have sworn that I heard somewhere that it was basically a standalone, which would have been nice since I’m not looking to get into any more uncompleted series. I figured this would be a quick, shallow, fun read that I’d never have to think about again.

It turns out I was super wrong about everything except it being a fast read. I did manage to race through it in about a day, but that was because it was really, really good, not because it was light reading.

This book is not light reading.

An Ember in the Ashes opens with a gut punch and then kicks the reader while they’re down, for over four hundred glorious pages. It’s a wild ride from the very beginning, and it’s definitely the best YA novel I’ve read in a couple of years.

At the same time, Ember is a sort of strange book for me to review. It has several glaring flaws that would ordinarily be dealbreakers for for me, but that Sabaa Tahir manages to make work.

First, I don’t love the names of the main characters, Laia and Elias. They’re just too close to each other, too many L’s and A’s, and though I never found them confusing, these names are just a little too match-y for my taste. They’re also part of a general lack of consistent naming conventions throughout the novel. The fantasy world of the book is ostensibly based upon ancient Rome, but the character names are a mix of Greek, English, Gaelic, and other origins. This could work as a way to differentiate between different cultures in the book, but that’s not how it’s done here. Instead, it’s just a mishmash of names, some of which make sense, some which don’t.

This sort of naming convention mess is increasingly characteristic of YA fiction in general, and it always turns me off a bit. It’s only tolerable here because the story Tahir tells is so well-crafted and because, while the names are sloppy, they don’t inhabit the realm of just plain silly and absurd that some YA character names do.

My second major criticism is also sort of about names, but in the general worldbuilding sense. Frankly, if it didn’t all manage to somehow work, I’d think that Tahir had used this humorous article at The Toast as a serious writing advice. Everything is just awfully generic.

There are the Scholar people, who are peaceful artisans and intellectuals who were easily overpowered and enslaved by the warlike Martial people. Aside from these two major groups, there are also Tribesmen, Barbarians, Lake People and Wildmen, The live in places like “The Empire,” “The Southern Lands,” and “The Tribal Deserts.” The one major holiday we see in the book is just called the “Moon Festival,” another extremely vague and generic piece of the world Tahir has created.

Even the prophesying Augurs seem generic when surrounded by so many other generic groups of people, and this isn’t helped much by the use of the name “Cain” for the main Augur. It’s a name that is so loaded with hackneyed connotations of antiquity, mystery and villainy (or occasional anti-heroism) that it should basically never be used unless an author is literally referring to the biblical Cain. I have a special loathing for the use of mythologically significant names in lieu of actual characterization.

All that said, there’s a lot to like about this fantasy world. There are definitely some bits of ancient Rome in here, but this isn’t Rome the great empire and foundation of western society. The Martials are Rome the violent colonizing juggernaut, and the Scholars and Tribespeople are clearly representative of the great civilizations of the Middle East and North Africa. While I think that the conflict between the Scholars and Martials is a little simplistic, it also offers a refreshingly different and much-needed perspective than the pro-imperialist ones that are more common in high fantasy.

Though there is much about this fantasy world that is bland and generic, there is still enough detail to make it stand out from more standard fare. The incorporation of creatures from Arab mythology is nice and helps to solidify the reader’s sense of the story world as vaguely Middle Eastern as opposed to the usual vaguely Medieval European fantasy.

The one really original fantastical element Tahir introduces is the masks worn by the uncreatively named Masks, and I would have liked to see this explained and explored a little more. Because Elias’s mask hasn’t bonded to him, we don’t get any firsthand details on what it’s like for any of the characters to have a mask permanently affixed to their faces. The masks are also mentioned inconsistently throughout the book, and it’s never quite clear exactly what the masks look like. It’s too bad that we don’t learn more about the masks because they’re probably the most unique worldbuilding aspect we’re shown.

The things that make all of the above-listed mediocrity okay and turn An Ember in the Ashes into a highly readable piece of work are the well-drawn main characters and a meticulously planned and beautifully realized plot. It also helps that Tahir avoids some of the more obnoxious YA tropes and what tropes she does utilize are smartly chosen. Finally, I really appreciate that Tahir isn’t afraid to hurt her characters. The stakes feel high and the danger feels real throughout the book, but at the same time I never felt like the suffering was gratuitous or overdone. 

This book feels like it shouldn’t work as well as it does, and there are any number of things I can pick out of it that I ordinarily don’t care for. However, I really enjoyed it, and I’m definitely looking forward to reading its sequel. An Ember in the Ashes is a sprawling, challenging young adult fantasy that is much greater than the sum of its parts.

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