An Ember in the Ashes is actually a current publication (whaaat) and was published in April of this year. Penned by Sabaa Tahir, this YA dystopian novel was nominated for Best Debut on Goodreads soooo, lets see if I agree, shall we?
An Ember in the Ashes is set in a brutal world where the empire is divided into two main classes, the Martials and the Scholars. The Martials are the military rulers of the empire and are trained from a very young age to be ruthless, savage soldiers. The Scholars are the oppressed former rulers who were overthrown by the Martials and are now subject to Martial law. Our two main characters are Elias, a Martial, and Laia, a Scholar. The novel is told in chapters alternating between Laia’s voice and Elias’.
The story opens with Laia and her family; her grandparents and brother, Darin. Recently, Laia caught a glimpse of Darin’s notebook and saw drawings of Martial weapons, called scims. This is highly treasonous – Martial scims are virtually indestructible blades and the major reason that the Martials overpowered and continue to rule the Scholars; they simply can’t be beaten in battle. Any Scholar with knowledge of scims and their properties is a threat to the empire. Laia is appropriately scared and annoyed at her brother, what is he thinking and is he part of the Scholar Resistance? Laia’s fear and annoyance are particular here because their parents were the leaders of the Resistance before they were betrayed and murdered by the Martials. Laia confronts Darin about his drawings and seconds later, a Mask appears outside their window. Masks are the most deadly of all Martial soldiers and are so named because of the silver mask that conforms to their faces and becomes truly a part of them. Laia and Darin are caught. The Masks murder their grandparents and take Darin away; to be tortured, to be executed, we don’t know. Laia runs and interestingly, the Masks let her go.
Elias is a Martial and attends the elite Mask training academy, Blackcliff. Blackcliff is a special sort of hell ruled by the uniquely vicious Commandant. Children from the highest echelons of Martial society are chosen by Augurs, the society’s kind of mystical, wise men, by the age of 6 to attend Blackcliff where in their first week they must either survive various obstacles, or die trying to do so. The entire Mask class is male except for one – every generation, the Augurs choose one female to attend Blackcliff. This generation’s lucky girl is Helene, Elias’ best friend. Masks have ruled the empire for a long time and have pretty much no regard for any human life that isn’t Martial – Masks torture, murder and rape with abandon and it is an accepted, and expected, part of life. It is a life that Elias can’t bear to lead. Elias is not like other Masks as his earliest years were spent with the Tribes people, not Martials. He was abandoned to the Tribes by his mother and grew up happy and peaceful. Elias doesn’t see Scholars or slaves as people to be used and abused just because he can. This is not to say that Elias is soft, he is, in fact, the most decorated Mask of his class but Elias plans to desert after graduation, to leave Helene and everything he has known to live a different life. The penalty for desertion is death, naturally.
As Laia is on the run, she discovers a Scholar Resistance cell and they give her a mission in return for helping to recover her brother. Her mission is to infiltrate Blackcliff as the Commandant’s slave to spy for the Resistance. I mentioned the Commandant earlier and boooooy is she mean. The Commandant is the ultimate Mask – ruthless, emotionless, tortuous. She gouged out one of her slaves eyes for some minor fault, like spilling water or something. Oh and the slave was only five years old at the time. So yeah, the Commandant is difficult to survive and if she discovers Laia, she isn’t just dead, she is tortured, abused and then dead.
Meanwhile, as Laia is spying on the Commandant, Elias’ plan to desert doesn’t quite work out. At their graduation ceremony he and Helene are chosen for The Trials. The Trials were prophesied hundreds of years ago by the Augurs – they foresaw that the emperor’s dynasty would come to an end and The Trials would produce the new ruler. So, the trials are a BFD and Elias doesn’t really have a choice but to compete. The top 4 Masks of their class participate in the Trials, the winner becoming emperor and the runner up his or her Blood Shrike (like The Hand of the King for those of you GoT fans out there). Elias and Helene have been a team for as long as they’ve been at Blackcliff so they work together to try to survive The Trials – there are 4 different tests and they are crazy dangerous and violent. Of course, during this time Elias and Laia cross paths and while I wouldn’t describe their relationship as a romance it is one of tenderness and new beginnings especially as Laia comes to understand that some Masks aren’t evil. I enjoyed their interactions but my favorite relationship was between Elias and Helene. They’re these two best friends who are caught in a competition to the death but who would do anything to save each other. They have a complex and really intriguing story line. Plus, Helene is just a total badass.
I totally loved this book, couldn’t put it down. Tahir’s world building is awesome and the dystopian, magical elements are handled so well. The characters and their relationships with each other are complex and exciting. If you like Hunger Games (and really, who doesn’t?) or Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, you’ll definitely enjoy An Ember in the Ashes. Book 2 is supposed to come out in 2016, and I’m so looking forward to it.