Ratings: ☕☕☕☕☕ (5/5)
I have read many amazing YA fantasy books, but it’s not often that I read a YA fantasy that leaves me breathless with excitement and anticipation with every page, and keeps me up all night even when I have a midterm early morning the next day. With a simple, yet captivating narration, immensely likeable protagonists, well developed characters and a uniquely diverse plot that explores cultures and myths that are not often portrayed in most literature, An Ember In The Ashes by Saaba Tahir is a book that I recommend everyone to read, especially to those who are looking for a bit of diversity in their reading.
The story begins with action, which was one of the things that made it hard for me to put down this book, and we immediately see our protagonists faced with two completely difficult and painful situations: on one hand we see Laia lose everything she ever head in the space of one night, but instead of pausing to grieve she immediately sets on a mission to save her brother. On the other hand, there is Elias, the best student of Blackcliffe, the son of a ruthless, heartless woman, planning to betray everything he was taught to fight for since he was a child. Through both of these characters, we see two distinct stories–the story of a damsel-in-distress learning to slay her own demons (literally and metaphorically), and the story of a soldier realizing that some things are worth dying for, even if doing so means betraying his own people. Of these two, Elias was probably my favorite perspective, perhaps because he is much more mature and has more humor than Laia, even though I do still love her as a protagonist. And the relationship between them was something that made my heart flutter, not just because they had electrifying chemistry, but because of how they slowly came to respecting and trusting each other.
The other characters in this book were equally well crafted. We have Helene, unwaveringly loyal to the Empire, to the point where you cannot help but hate her for her careless attitude towards how her people mistreats the Scholars, but at the same time you cannot help but admire how strong, and brave she is. Then there are the antagonists of course–Marcus, the Commandant and the Nightbringer–who are by far the most evil, and villainous characters I have read in a book and will no doubt make you love to hate them.
As for the plot, well since this is only the first book, for now all we see is the conflict between the Martials who have a history of causing bloodshed and oppressing others for centuries and the Scholars who were once were very powerful through knowledge until the Martials conquered them and turned them into slaves. But it is clear that there is more to the plot than just your typical story of rebellion by the oppressed–there is magic, there is the story of jinns and efrits, things we will probably explore more in the later books–and I’ll admit, I enjoyed Tahir’s take of Islamic myths even more because they were stories that I grew up listening to, and hence I was more than thrilled to see a bit of my culture portrayed here. The romance was very subtle yet cleverly woven into the plot to get you excited over even the smallest scenes between the characters, which is exactly how I like my YA novels; I always find it ridiculous when writers focus too much on the character’s lovelife while the world around them is falling apart.
The only thing lacking in this novel is the world building. Although it is easy to understand that the story is set in a place that is somewhat a mix of Ancient Rome and Middle East, the lack of world building made it difficult to truly appreciate the culture and the society the story takes place in.
Despite this flaw, I still immensely enjoyed reading An Ember In The Ashes, and I highly recommend this to anyone who is a fan of Young Adult and Fantasy.