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Friday, June 12, 2015

An Ember In The Ashes by Sabaa Tahir (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

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AUTHOR INFORMATION: Sabaa Tahir was born in London, UK and grew up in California. As she grew up, she spent her time devouring fantasy novels, raiding her brother's comic book stash, and playing guitar badly. After graduating from UCLA, she joined Washington Post and began writing An Ember in the Ashes. Sabaa currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family. 

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free. Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do. But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

FORMAT INFORMATION: An Ember In The Ashes is 453 pages long divided into four titled sections further spread out over fifty chapters. Narration is in the first person via Elias Veturias and Laia. This is the first book of a series.

April 28, 2015 marked the US hardback and e-book publication of An Ember In The Ashes by Razorbill Books.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: An Ember In The Ashes is Sabaa Tahir’s debut and one of the most anticipated YA releases of this year. The author has talked about various influences that went in to this book. The world settings are a secondary fantasy world, which is a mix of some Roman and Indo-Persian settings.

The story has two POV characters Laia of the Scholar clan and Elias Veturias of the Martial clan. These two characters are the prisms through which we see the world and it is a brutal one even though for its young adult genre. Laia is living a normal life or as normal can be defined when you live the life of a conquered people. She lives with her brother Darin and her grandparents. Things however take a horrid turn when her home is ransacked and her brother captured and her grandparents murdered. She has to flee her home and find out the resistance to rescue her brother but that is a herculean task in itself. Elias Veturias is a twenty-year old student warrior of the Blackcliff academy that is a martial Hogwarts with Voldemort as its headmaster. Elias hates his life and is trying to escape however that isn’t an easy process and he has family to consider. The ironic part being his mother is the commandant of the Blackcliff academy and hates him while his grandfather is the only relative who has ever supported him.

These two characters both have different reasons to be at the Blackcliff academy and how their paths cross is the main focus of the story. The best part of the story is the characterization, with both Laia and Elias, the author brings out these vulnerable three-dimensional human beings who are forced to do things that go against their very nature. There’s also the side-supporting cast, chief among whom is Helene Aquilla who is another fellow student and a good comrade of Elias. Laia has her handler Keenan and a sympathetic resistance fighter Sana in her corner. There’s also the commandant who truly is a horrific person and I hope the author does explore her background so we can learn more about why and how of what she does and thinks. These characters do lend an intriguing air to the overall plot and I hope the author gives them more page time in the sequels. Especially Helene who steals the show with her no-nonsense attitude and is more than an effective foil to Elias.

Another intriguing aspect of the story was the way the author included certain Hindi-Urdu words into the world vocabulary and also delineated the scholar and martial clans along Roman and Indo-Persian cultural ethos and racial lines. The author however doesn’t quite go into much detail about the world origins or how the scholar and martial clans came to be. This was one of the things that is definitely a drawback for this debut. The author however makes the story quite a fast-paced one and there are a few twists that come out of the left field that make the story a fun one to read. The magic system as well as the world mythology isn't quite touched upon, it's mentioned in passing here and there. But as a world-building junkie I would have preferred a detailed outlook into both and I hope the author does make the world a bit deeper than it's showcased in this debut volume.

Of course with this being a young adult novel, there’s a certain predictability to the storyline and one good aspect was how the author downplayed the romance angle. Of course there’s romantic tension that’s introduced within the story for both Elias and Laia however neither does it overwhelm the main plot nor does it confound their thinking ability. Both characters are focused on the tasks that they wish to accomplish and act admirably even though they are both so new to the adult world.

CONCLUSION: Overall this was a debut story that I enjoyed for its fast-paced plot, and engaging characters. It didn’t quite re-invent the wheel but what the author does is present a story that has a fresh touch to it and is well written within its genre confines. An Ember In The Ashes is a fun debut and one whose sequel I’ll be eagerly awaiting to read when it releases in 2016.


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