100-Character Breakdown: Striking with compelling prose and a vivid world filled to the brim with deep, complex characters.
Genre: Young adult, fantasy
Publisher: Razorbill (April 2015)
In a Sabaa Tahir’s striking debut novel An Ember in the Ashes, she alternates between two perspectives in a well-crafted world inspired by Ancient Rome. Laia is a Scholar, a group who was conquered and has lived under the brutal rule of the Martials for 500 years. A Mask — one of the Martial Empire’s most elite soldiers, marked by the liquid silver masks they wear — kills Laia’s grandparents and takes her brother Darin, who is accused of working for the Resistance. Laia soon finds herself acting as slave to the Commandant of Blackcliff Military Academy, where the Masks are trained. Her mission is to spy on the Commandant; in turn, the Resistance will help free her brother. As she is forced into the academy, Elias, despised son of the Commandant, is hoping to escape. Nearing his graduation from the academy at the top of his class, Elias will soon be a Mask. But he wants nothing more than to escape the Empire and his mother.
The two varied perspectives show different sides of the Empire, though Laia and Elias share their disdain for it. While the novel borrows from some common tropes of the genre and has moments of predictability, the well-paced story and three-dimensional protagonists overcome these issues. Tahir uses each perspective to enhance the other, revealing secrets at the right times and heightening the tension of one character with the discoveries of another. Interacting with her protagonists is an interesting and complex secondary cast. The motives of each character are complicated and have potential to dramatically impact the story; even the characters the book explores briefly come across as vivid and essential. Tahir’s addition of a supernatural element — from the mysterious Augurs to jinns and efrits — bolsters the twists and the turns that make the novel such a riveting read. An Ember in the Ashes opens up a complex and exciting world filled to the brim with equally complex characters, and Tahir’s compelling prose ties it together expertly.