As Sabaa Tahir’s final book in this spectacular series is out and I’m going to get it for Christmas, I wanted to upload my past reviews of her books leading up to A Sky Beyond The Storm. So, is this another YA dystopia? That’s what I thought at first. But I got over it, almost instantaneously.
An Ember in the Ashes is the overnight bestseller and debut from Tahir and is about a land run by an Empire, which is run by Martials with generally crazy three-syllable last names. Then there are Scholars, the people who are supposedly smart – and are the targets of profiling and discrimination. A young teen named Laia one day has to out of nowhere turn to the Resistance when the Martials raid her home where it’s just her, her brother Darin and her Nan and Pop (grandpa). In order to get the last of her family out of prison, the Resistance decides to help her because apparently her parents were very skillful spies…she’s not but she avoids this, and is sent to the Blackcliff Military Academy as a spy. There, there’s a prodigy named Elias Veturius that is competing in these trials against three other prodigies, one of which he sort of loves, the others he despises, to see who will be the next ruler. However, Elias doesn’t like how things are run, and the Empire may not want there to be a fair fight if he has these kinds of ideas…
So, look. After hearing pretty much every reviewer I know love this book, I decided to trust my instincts and buy it. And the start was one where at first I thought, “Um…Should I have done that?” Because a little too much happens too fast during the first two chapters, killing off characters we don’t know much about way too early, and going to the Resistance immediately actually reminded me of a book a friend of mine wrote called Silent Night, and this book sounded so much like it. And in the second chapter, there’s a plan to leave home after too much hatred being sought. Again, it felt too early to put this in. But you know what? Both of these chapters still made me interested because Sabaa Tahir wrote these in a way that was so unfair, so emotional, so perfectly infuriating that I just knew I would like this. And oh my god, An Ember in the Ashes continues throughout this book the same infuriation and sadness I felt on those first two chapters all throughout the book, minus the overly early plot points, and I loved it from start to finish.
I generally don’t like books that have characters that feel too perfect. Which sounds weird and perverse but hear me out. I can still enjoy a book that has a main character who can juggle knives in their sleep, keep a 3-star French restaurant going single-handedly, or can face 100 guns head-on like Hit Girl or John Wick. But I generally prefer books that have characters that feel puny, making them have to go through something enormously challenging. And Laia is a girl without training, without biceps, without courage, kind of like the girl from the masterpiece Spirited Away. She also puts herself in a situation that is described so relateably, so unfairly, and so scary that I half-expected a mirror to come onto a page, showing me mimicking her fear. Like Red Queen, Red Rising and The Lunar Chronicles, the world Tahir has created generates a world that makes you want to be able to reach out and choke the bad guys and then snap their necks.
And I’m not usually the biggest fan of books that have two constant points of view. I sometimes find that two stories consistently at once can make the story drag and dry out, having to explain backgrounds and catchups every time a new chapter begins. But there are also several times where it can work, giving us different opinions on situations and different secrets they don’t know whether to share with the other person or not. And it is when the halfway point of this book comes up when this decision makes this novel a rocket to my best of the year list. Laia and Elias both get in situations where either could be noticed, and the double chance made it all the more tense. Also, the book kind of mocked me, giving cliffhangers that can make your head clench until you find what happens next. But I didn’t ever feel like the next chapter was a hindrance to either story, because it all happens in unison so there’s usually something relevant in the other point of view. And both characters are fighting battles of their own, and though Laia’s is better in my opinion, the action never seemed to slow down, even before the way point.
Laia tries to find info about the Martials but she takes her time, one key factor being that she’s scared of the possible retribution, another factor that adds a plus to the protagonist thing I mentioned. But the Resistance is even a little aggravating and that thing is something unusual, and when that plot point came up, well, I gave the book extra points. What else was I gonna do, jump across rooftops in the nude? I was thinking about that when a certain cliffhanger comes up that defines tension in a tight knot. You’ll know which one.
Now, there’s a part of the story that seems a little too borrowed from The Hunger Games, and a character reminds me a little too much of Draco Malfoy, but these are minor, especially since I was able to read this book as fast as I did. An Ember in the Ashes lives up to all the hype, and is a book that reminds us all that Young Adult books are not strictly for anyone still in education. Young Adult books done well are treats for everyone, and this is proof.