An Ember in the Ashes is the incredible debut novel of Sabaa Tahir. It is an absolutely fantastic read which I will be recommending all round! The novel fits into the category of YA lit and is a fantasy novel with many elements reminiscent of Ancient Rome, particularly the setting. I think this one appeals to a wide range of readers, but in particular I think it’ll be a winner for fans of Star Wars and Harry Potter. There is also a film adaptation in the works which I can only imagine will be incredible, AND a sequel to come which I can’t wait for!
Tahir’s characters are phenomenal. There are two protagonists – Leia and Elias – which is a set up I always find pleasing in a novel. The chapters alternate between their perspectives and from the start you are just itching to see how their paths will cross.
Both are likeable characters, with a conflict of identity between who they should be and who they are. Thematically this is linked in with the concept of masks.
Elias is in his final year of training to be a Mask at Blackcliff. Masks are an elite group of soldiers for the Empire, named for the terrifying masks they wear which meld to their faces. The brutal nature of their work doesn’t sit well with Elias, and neither does the fact that his mother – who abandoned him as a child – is the commandant of the Masks and runs their training. He is gifted at what he does and hides his reluctance carefully – but like his mask which refuses to meld with his face as it is meant to, his true feelings threaten to expose him to punishment and death.
He has a complicated friendship with Helene, the only female mask in their cohort. She is the most bad-ass character and while her perspective isn’t offered, she has a crucial role in the novel. She makes an interesting foil for Elias, and also for the Commandant and Leia.
Leia is from the Scholar district, one which is persecuted by the Empire. She is a timid girl who knows she should be more courageous. All her life there’s been her brother to be the courageous one, and when he is torn from her by a brutal Mask she resolves to do whatever it takes to save him. After all, that’s what he would do for her. When she turns to the Resistance for their help, she finds herself taking risks she never knew she had the strength for.
As well as likeable heroic protagonists who are caught on opposing sides of a war, there are some fantastically horrible villains. The Commandant of Blackcliff takes precedence here – whipping and flogging children and disfiguring her slaves on a whim; but there are also the twins Marcus and Zac for whom brutality is second nature. Marcus is Elias’s nemesis and main competitor and the main feature of Helene’s nightmares. Zac seems to have some redeemable qualities but is overshadowed and encompassed by his elder twin’s nature.
I just can’t emphasise how great this novel is. It’s real. It’s gritty. It’s powerful.
My first 5/5 in a while!
Read an interview with the author and the first two chapters HERE.