An Ember in the Ashes
Fantasy Book Review
Sabaa Tahir wrote an excellent novel. Rumor has it that it is going to be almost immediately turned into a movie at the hands of Paramount. This shouldn’t be a surprise, Young Adult fantasy seems to be the only sub-genre in fantasy that can hold the attention of summer movie goers for a full two hours. While that might sound like a complaint, HBO has taught us that TV serials are a much better place for the in-depth exploration of lands like Westeros, but I digress.
The world Tahir builds takes place in and around Blackcliff Academy. The place feels like a much darker military school version of Hogwarts, where every authority figure makes Snape look like a cuddly teddy bear of an uncle. The conflict is between two classes, castes almost, in the book: the Martials and the Scholars. The Martials are the ruling class and they treat the peasant Scholars with a disdain worthy of King Leonidas. This is Sparta but a darker, meaner Sparta.
The story is told from the alternating viewpoints of Elias, a Martial Mask in training, and Laia, a scholar wanting to do nothing more than save her brother and survive to tell the tale. Elias seems to be the only sane Martial in the academy. He clings to his humanity as the rest of his brethren seem resigned to having that humanity beaten or traumatically ripped from them in a series of painful trials. That is Blackcliff, an academy with the singular goal of turning children into ruthless, domineering assholes. Elias does his best to push back against this environment without getting himself killed in the process. Symbolism is rife in the form of the actual Mask these young killers are asked to don. The mask itself is an ethereal quicksilver that melds to one’s face. Elias is the only one in his graduating class that still takes the Mask off, physical ripping the silvery tendrils of the parasitic device from his face, if only in the confines of his own room. Symbolizing the struggle of pushing back against an autocratic regime in this way makes for some really powerful visuals. This struggle is at the heart of the Elias character and colors all of his actions.
Laia, on the other hand, is a coward. Or she thinks she’s a coward anytime she runs from certain death situations. She beats herself up over this to an extreme that seems a little trite. Again and again, she claims ‘I don’t have the courage to do something like that,” and then goes ahead and does it. This is YA fiction, so it can be forgiven. We do get it, everyone faces challenges and you have to woman up to get it done. Laia’s challenge is that the Masks came and took her brother for possessing militaristic drawings that are a serious no-no for the downtrodden class. She then spends the novel trying to break her brother, Darin, out of prison. This brings her in contact with the Scholar resistance which starts her whirlwind into a life of espionage and adventure.
Inevitably, the two characters cross paths. This is where the love triangle, or love star of David, begins. There are multiple triangles being juggled as these characters wrestle with young love in an era of repression and sadism. The love stays very PG and innocent throughout but Tahir does a good job of making every character in each triangle worthy of love and our empathy. The characters are well thought out and very identifiable. They may not be as complex as you will find in a Martin or Rothfuss novel, but this is YA fiction where black and white necessarily holds sway.
There are not a ton of lessons to learn within these pages but it is a very fun, adrenaline filled read that is well worth your time.