Because of my schedule, most of the reading I'm getting done has been in the car via audiobooks. I've mentioned previously that I've been dealing with a few duds - not because the books were bad, but the narrator just did not gel with me. I've found that audiobooks with multiple narrators are ones that attract me the most. I lucked into An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir - other than slavery being involved, I had literally no idea what the book was about, or that it was told from two perspectives.
Laia is a Scholar, a member of a territory occupied by the Martial Empire. As a Scholar, she has next to no rights, but she's at least happy - her parents died when she was young, so she grew up with her grandparents and her brother. That is, until her brother is arrested by the Martials for treason, and the only way to save him is to ally herself with the Resistance, a group of Scholars determined to take the Martials down. The only way they'll help her? If she goes as their spy into the most fortified Martial academy and works as a slave for the headmistress, who's last slave lasted two weeks before she threw herself off the cliffs.
Elias, on the other hand, is a Martial - and the headmistress' bastard son. He's the top of his class, but as graduation looms and he'll become a full-fledged Mask, the Martial assassins who carry out horrendous crimes in the name of the Empire, he's planning to desert. If discovered in his attempt to escape, he'll be executed. But he wants freedom from this life more than anything in the world.
It takes quite a while for Laia's and Elias' stories to intertwine, but that makes a lot of sense, given they are from opposite worlds. But when they do, the effects are both incredible and potentially cataclysmic. After all, both are reluctant in their enterprises. Laia has no interest in joining the Resistance. She just wants to save her brother and escape into the free lands. Elias, similarly, just wants to be free of the Empire. But when Martials and Scholars are kept so separate, how could they possibly know they've found a kindred spirit?
This is not a happy book. One horrible thing after another happens to these two, and their friends and family. There's very little light throughout the entire story. But that makes the few glimpses of light, the few pieces of happiness, so precious to the reader (or in my case, the listener), that I found myself begging for the next respite from all the horror. And that seemed to me proof enough that I was engaged in this novel. I was ready to listen through horror after horror in the off chance there would be something nice on the horizon.
I will say the only thing I did not like about this book is an awkward love quadrangle set up - it's extremely minor, but whenever it comes up I just found it so irrelevant to the big, awful things actually going on in the story. Yes, they're all teenagers, but there ones that are dealing with things so much more important than which-one-do-I-like-more. Typically I enjoy romance elements in books, but this one, in the face of the main plot, just felt wholly unnecessary.
That said, I loved everything else about this book, even as it made me feel awful. Laia is an incredibly relatable character, reluctant in everything, scared of everything, but so driven by love for her brother that she begins to realize just how much she's capable of. Elias is beautiful in his resistance to what the world tells him he should be, hilarious in his ignorance of other people's emotions, and heartbreaking in his simple desire to just be free that everyone seems determined to keep him from. I love the complexities in their stories, in their histories, and in who they are now.
I also love the characters who populate Laia's and Elias' worlds. Even the most minor are complicated in their own right. Even the most terrible are terrible for a reason. There are no pure villains here (though you may think so at first), nor pure heroes. There is always a cost to having a firm belief.
This is a fantasy novel in the lightest sense - I imagine the second book will have many more fantasy elements, but I don't want to spoil why. Most of this novel reads more like a political novel, the fantasy being very much on the periphery of everything else. We're dealing with Empires, rebels, military academies, etc. We're dealing with loyalty, bravery, and traitors. As someone who is often exhausted by high fantasy, I found An Ember in the Ashes extremely refreshing.
And though this world is full of horrors, it's crafted with such love to every detail that I was fully immersed. Sabaa Tahir leaves no stone unturned, no question unanswered about the world and people she has created. Everything feels full thought out, as if the world existed already and Tahir is just writing it down for us. I am totally impressed, and totally invested - I want to know what happens next, well, yesterday.
I definitely recommend listening to the audiobook. Although it takes some time for our main characters to finally meet, I think listening to their voices keeps you from feeling antsy waiting for their meeting. The narrators of the Audible version were very talented in distinguishing between characters - no two sounded the same. I also liked seeing how they voiced characters that both Laia and Elias interact with - because their interpretations of the voices are heavily influenced by how Laia and Elias think of those characters, if that makes sense. Plus, the chapters cut off at incredibly inopportune times to switch to the other point of view - and I loved that feeling of "No! Wait! What happens?" I couldn't skip ahead to find out, I had to see the other side and realize the implications. It was a great experience.
Five stars to An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. I may never be happy again, but god I can hope Elias and Laia might someday.