By KATIE STOCKDALE
Fantasy has made a comeback over the past few years, attracting a new generation of readers. This is proven with Sabaa Tahir’s debut novel, An Ember in the Ashes. Tahir, like many authors, has combined fantasy with young adult adventure fiction, creating a thriller that is less intimidating than a traditional fantasy novel like Lord of the Rings or A Game of Thrones. Now is the time to pick it up, as the next book, A Torch in the Night, came out on Tuesday, Aug. 30.
An Ember in the Ashes is set in a Roman-esque world and follows the lives of two very different characters. Laia, a Scholar, is part of the poor and oppressed society that was crushed under the Martial Empire. And Elias is a Martial, training to be a Mask, their most deadly weapon; and son of Gens Veturia, one of the strongest Martial families.
Different as they are, they both have a choice looming over them as the story opens. For Laia, the choice is between fighting a battle she is sure to lose in order to save her last remaining family member or to flee. For Elias, the choice is to desert his post, lose all of his titles, and risk capture, but be free of the place he hates; or let it consume him.
These choices, and the character’s reactions to them, are a testament to how developed Tahir’s writing is. Both characters are deeply complex, containing flaws, and recognizing those flaws in themselves. Not only do they recognize these flaws, they judge themselves by them.
Laia is a self-proclaimed coward, and throughout the novel she rallies against her own fear.
Elias sees himself as a hypocrite, worse than the other brutal Martials because he believes their actions to be wrong, but he does not change his own.
These intriguing character contrasts are merely part of the novel Tahir has penned. No fantasy world would be complete without World-Building, and Tahir gives the perfect amount that does not detract from the plot or characters. Both characters are skeptical of magic, but quickly lose this skepticism when they come in contact with the magical creatures of Tahir’s world.
Tahir combines mythology, drawing creatures from Middle Eastern and Arabic folklore and combining them with European fairy creatures. Jinn, efrits, and ghuls come from the Middle East while wraiths come from Scotland and fey are the general term for fairies in Europe. While she pulls these creatures from an established history of lore, she expands their magical traits.
Drawing from the Roman influence, are the Augurs of the Martial Empire. They stand separate from the government of the Empire and are almost gods to the Martials. As in the Roman view of the world, the Augurs can see the future. They have been alive since the beginning of the Empire and exist to protect its future. But beyond divination, they can create ‘living’ metal, masks which bind to their wearers’ faces. This is the gift the Augurs give to the most elite soldiers of the Empire and it is what Elias is training to become.
While magic is an underlying part of the book, it could have been emphasized more. However, the book is only the first in a series, and could simply be introducing the magic system so that it can flourish in later books.
The plot of the novel did an excellent job setting up for the rest of the four-book series. It allowed for the book to feel finished but still drove excitement forward for the sequel, and seeds were planted for larger conflicts that can be carried into future books.
The book’s messages of self-doubt and even self-hatred carry strong weight. Without being too overbearing, the messages cause readers to reflect on themselves and enhance the characters.
Katie Stockdale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org