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An Ember In The Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

An Ember In The Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
Book Name: An Ember In The Ashes
Author: Sabaa Tahir
Publisher(s): Harper Voyager
Formatt: Hardback, Paperback, Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Dystopian / Young Adult
Release Date: 2015

An Ember In The Ashes has landed with a huge splash in an ocean full of Hunger Games-esque titles; perhaps due to the incredibly favourable 5* reviews amongst the usually hard to please reviewers at mainstream publications such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and so on. But does it deserve the hype? Is it really more than just another YA Dystopian? Read on and we’ll give you our thoughts…

The one floor elevator pitch for An Ember In The Ashes is: “What if you were a ember, a spark that could ignite a revolution?”

To unravel that metaphor in the context of this book: imagine if you were a girl living under a dictatorship. You’re pretty insignificant in their eyes, but you know that within you you’ve got the kind of belief and willpower that can inspire a surge in the resistance. Now, forget about about being that girl for just a moment. Instead, what if you were a high-profile member of the dictatorship and, after witnessing the disgusting acts of your people (both towards their own people and those they rule over), you decide you’ve had enough? Would people see your breaking of convention and change their ways too?

This is essentially where the book picks up. The first thread is about a young girl named Laia whose brother comes bounding through their window one night after his increasingly common bouts of sneaking out past curfew. Suddenly, members of the ‘Marshals’ descend upon their home – they say they want to know what Laia’s brother has been up to, but it is quite apparent that they just want to kill the entire family to ensure that whatever it is stops. There will be no trial or investigation.

Screen Shot 2015-12-12 at 15.02.28Laia’s most fearful of a particular member of the raid known as a ‘Mask’. The early chapters do a very good job of making this brutal, ninja-like character come across as supernatural/mysterious in nature – genuinely, they are completely terrifying individuals and a great creation by the author. If you’ve seen Scream, I kind of imagined them to be like ‘Ghostface’ with a touch of Bruce Lee’s athletic ability thrown in.

Thanks to Laia’s brother’s bravery she is somehow able to get away – her storyline is about her hunt for the ‘resistance’.

Something the book does expertly is move on from this dark and terrifying beginning to the storyline of Elias, a ‘Mask’ in-training with the ‘Marshals’. Not only is Elias a Mask, but he is related to a high-ranking member of the ‘Marshals’ and considered to be one of their most promising recruits. To be a Mask is to be an almost emotionless killer. It doesn’t quite work out that way though, the vast majority of masks are full of emotion: but it’s a hatred for the ‘Scholars’ (Laia’s people) and they’ve come to enjoy the brutality and violence that a Mask is expected to perform. We witness this first hand when a young Mask in training makes a trivial error and is whipped in-front of the young Masks who take great enjoyment in seeing his pain.

Elias though is different. Despite being set-up and trained to be the greatest ‘Mask’ who ever lived he isn’t turned on by the violence. He doesn’t enjoy hurting people or like the idea of ruling the Scholars by force. He has decided that on his day of graduation (just a few days from the point that the novel begins) he will run away to somewhere the Marshal’s will never be able to find him.

No one knows about Elias’s plans, but if they did they’d likely think he out of his mind. To be a Mask takes years of putting up with suffering, for their upbringing is very Spartan-like: being thrown into the wild for a number of years and told to survive on their own, having life made a daily struggle that requires both physical and mental strength to survive, and so on. Should Elias just keep his mouth shut and graduate as a Mask he’d have an easy life, he’d have all the power he could possibly need and all he’d need to do is enforce a bit of brutality on the helpless Scholars to keep them inline.

revolution-fistUnlike a lot of Dystopian novels, there are elements of more traditional Fantasy within An Ember In The Ashes. The Masks themselves are almost parasitic in that they begin to bind to the flesh of the person who wears it – never to be removed once it has fully bound – and there are 15 red-eyed Augurs who are said to be immortal and serve as the head of the Marshals. Although some, such as Elias, doubt the claims of the Augurs immortality, many seem to believe they have oracle-like powers and can read the minds of those around them should they have reason to. Regardless of the abilities they do or do not have, they play an important behind the scenes roll in keeping the Marshals at the top and the Scholars at the bottom. It would spoil too much to go much further into how they play an important part in the direction of An Ember In The Ashes, but they deliver the first great plot twist very early on.

The contrast of the many characters we meet in this novel and the very different paths they take works spectacularly. The different upbringings, the different cultures they’ve been brought up in, their different voices and yet the similar ambitions they have to change the way the world currently works is invigorating. If conflict is the most important part of a novel, it is no wonder that moving through An Ember In The Ashes is such a treat – the conflict is not only always there, but hitting the characters and the story’s forward momentum on multiple levels too.

The big difference between An Ember In The Ashes and so many other YA Books seems to be the darkness of the novel. I wouldn’t go as far to say that Young Adult novels stay away from violence, look at Joe Abercrombie’s recent work, for example, and consider that The Hunger Games is essentially about forced murder, but within An Ember In The Ashes, in addition to the physical there is no shyness in addressing the mental damage inflicted upon members of both the Scholars and the Marshals. Additionally, whereas most Young Adult novels tend to soften the blows of brutality with a focus on a romance or always ensure there is that warm Dumbledore or Effie-like figure to provide a safety net, you never really feel that in Tahir’s work. Yes there is a romance, yes there are characters who help the protagonists, but it is never done so in a way that pushes the darkness of the character’s situation to a secondary.

SabVoyager used to be the publisher that put out just a few incredible Fantasy books a year. In fact, before 2015, I think their last signing was Mark Lawrence (and how long ago does that seem?). When I heard that Voyager would be looking to expand their list considerably I thought maybe they were going to take a few risks, perhaps put out 6/7 books in a single year and see which one of them was liked and continue on from there. What has happened howeve, is that their new Editor, Natasha Bardon, has taken charge of some incredible new authors and authors that I don’t think will be going anywhere anytime soon… Peter Newman, Francesca Haig, and now Sabaa Tahir are authors I will be keeping an eye on after 2015’s fantastic releases (and that’s in addition to Robin Hobb, Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence) – the Voyager list is looking stronger than ever!


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