This one’s a good ‘un, you guys! I’ve had my eye on it for months, hearing nothing but good things, and it really blew me away. It’s the kind of YA book that makes me proud to be a YA reader, one that teaches a rough lesson or two, that takes difficult but real subject matters and says ‘fuck sugar-coating this bitch, I ain’t Mary Poppins; you’re a young adult audience and you need the truth on this matter, for your own damn good’. Just to add to the mix, we’ve got some well-crafted characters, a highly original and well-paced plot, and a couple of love stories that didn’t make a romance-loathing reader like myself want to gouge her eyes out. You’ve got yourself a pretty damn-near perfect YA novel, Sabaa Tahir.
Set in a Roman Empire-esque fantasy world, we follow two protagonists whose lives intertwine slightly, but whose stories are still very separate and very much their own. Our first MC is Laia, a poor girl of the oppressed Scholar people. She’s shy and bookish; she doesn’t consider herself brave at all, but when her grandparents are killed and her brother is taken to be tortured and potentially killed, she knows that there is nothing she can do but try and save him. She finds the Resistance and agrees to pass herself off as a slave girl in order to spy on a fearsome woman called the Commandant in exchange for the Resistance’s help. And boy, does she get the short end of the stick.
“Only speak to the Commandant if she speaks to you. Don’t look her in the eyes – she’s flogged slaves for less. When she gives you a task, carry it out quickly and well. She’ll disfigure you in the first few weeks, but you’ll thank her for it eventually – if the scarring’s bad enough, it’ll keep the older students from raping you too often.”
What Laia has to go through is insane. There’s a war on, it’s very Roman Empire, the horrors in this story are incredibly real, and that’s what I love. So many YA novels are dystopia-themed, there’s usually a war on, but they’re all so remarkably tame. Sure you can have a few characters die on you, but how often in YA do we witness torture, rape, or the implied mutilation of children? I’m not suggesting more books should include such horrible and triggering subjects (I’m not so demonic I actually crave this stuff, rest assured), but I really respected Sabaa Tahir for using the fucking blunt end of the knife here. I do think young adults should start reading a tougher brand of literature, especially in the genre itself which is supposed to be educational and supportive. And while most YA covers the tricky transitional period for your average modern teen, the rest of your life isn’t going to be all school troubles and boy blues, is it? Life throws people some pretty rough shit and it’s a good thing to be able to read about it and understand it as best we can. And Gods, does it make an emotional read at times.
And how about that Commandant, eh? She’s essentially an albino Miss Trunchbull on Atkins and fucking terrifying. I wasn’t sure about her at first; I always prefer my villains to have more to them that just blatant evilness. With the Commandant there is no reason why she’s such a twisted bitch, no way for the reader to look at her and understand the psychological reasons behind her sadism. But as I read on, and became increasingly scared of her, I realised just why she’s a brilliant villan: yet again, it’s real. Unfortunately, there are people out there who are just sociopaths. Psychopaths. People who are evil, who are cruel, and there is no way to understand them. Though we want to, though we think that being able to understand them, even slightly, may help us feel less angry with the world and the worst of its people, it doesn’t work like that. Some people are just bad; bad to the proverbial bone, and it sucks. It’s a horrifying realisation to come to when you’re entering adulthood, because I think the vast majority of us always held a belief that once you’re grown, all the bullshit just stops and people are mature enough to understand that we need to be nice to each other. It was a cold, cold day in my late teens when I understood that this was not to be the case, and that was only one of the painful realities of adulthood I had to accept over the following years. Maybe that’s why I really hated (but admired the writing of) the Commandant; she wasn’t just a good literary villain, she was a reminder of the sheer cold I would feel when being faced with another lesson about life in the adult world, and a representation of everything I believe is wrong with it, and on top of that, her Trunchbull resemblance played on my childhood fears as well. Dammit she was a very good villain.
The fact that Laia survives her is proof of her incredible strength. Though Laia’s personal journey throughout the book is a simple one, just dealing with the issue of courage, I simply loved it. She wants to be strong like her parents, fighters of the resistance who stared death in the face and insulted its mother. She faces the Commandant every day and endures torture, all the while berating herself for being terrified of her. And all the while, reader Tess is screaming ‘dammit Laia you are the bravest and truest protagonist I have seen in ages’. Courage is not the absence of fear, you guys, and I love that this message plays a big part in this book. I needed a break from the Action Girl trope, the kickass Chosen Ones who is the specialist of all the special people ever. My favourite heroes are the every day ones, the ordinary people who are not special but who face the odds because it’s the right thing to do. That beats physical strength and magical powers any day.
I see a lot of potential for Laia if we get a sequel, and we had better get a sequel because oh the unanswered questions…
Our second protagonist, Elias, is a senior Martial, training at the academy to kick ass and take names. Only he doesn’t want to. I really liked Elias as a protagonist; he deals with the struggle between doing what he wants and what is right. He wants to be free of the Empire, of having to kill people without mercy. I don’t blame him, truth be told. But he is put in a position where he has to decide if he can sacrifice his freedom in the hopes that he can make the Empire a better place. And it’s a long shot, which is why his struggle is so well-written and real. He is a good guy, an interesting character, and even though he felt a bit like a Gary Stu (it’s implied that he’s the only male in the world who doesn’t just want to kill people and rape slaves; I mean come on), I still enjoyed his story. It was even enhanced by the presence of a small love story with his best friend Helene. The love story does sort of devolve into a love triangle (well, rectangle, really), which was utterly pointless and annoying but at least it didn’t overshadow the plot. Elias and Helene’s relationship I actually enjoyed. It was strong, it had purpose and gave the story new meaning. Though I feel the same ends could have been achieved with just a really strong friendship, Helene and Elias did still elicit some strong feels in me.
Without giving too much detail away in terms of plot, this one was good, guys. Fast-paced, but with enough time for reflection. A hint of magic and the fantastic but without it being a main focal point, choosing instead to focus on characters. It was heavily character-driven, intriguing and emotional. And as I said earlier, it was fucking brutal. Sabaa Tahir takes no prisoners, and she certainly captivated me. It’s been a long time since I’ve had such very intense feelings about the shit that fictional characters go through.
Right now, An Ember in the Ashes is a standalone, but it has such potential for a sequel especially as everything is so unresolved! I do highly recommend this for anyone looking for a good YA read, with a new and exciting feel and some important lessons packed into it.