Monday, June 20, 2016

Book Review: An Ember In The Ashes

I haven't been doing many long form reviews lately, instead choosing to do book reviews on a smaller scale in my monthly reviews, but I thought this one deserved a longform. (They'll be a few more of these as I have about 4 ARCs that I need to work through in the coming weeks!) As always, spoilers abound. 

AN EMBER IN THE ASHES by Sabaa Tahir is one of those books that I was interested in but was a little worried about it because it looked and sounded a lot like another YA fantasy that I had high hopes for and just fizzled for me, but it came up in my library queue and I thought I'd give it a shot. And I'm glad I did. This book was phenomenal on so many levels that it's clearly going to wind up in my Best of list at the end of the year.

There was so much I liked about this book and, as I read, realized it shared with my own writing. Great characters, well thought out but not overly complex worldbuilding (I mean that as a compliment and I'll get to that in a minute) and a snappy plot that keeps things small within the larger story. 

One of the things I've noticed about YA fantasy is the desire to kind of make everything about these giant stakes, this does that but on a vastly smaller scale, so to speak. As much as the competition between the Masks to be the next Emperor is a driving force of the narrative, the reason everything happens in this story is because Laia wants to rescue her brother. This is the engine that makes the story move and it's well done. Laia doesn't want to topple and empire, she wants to live her life and when that is thrown into chaos with the capture of her brother, she makes desperate agreements with the rebellion, a group she's never really wanted a part of. And Elias just wants to leave the empire. He wants no part of it, even though he is integral to it in every way. It's a huge way this story works. As epic as the stakes are in what is happening, that's actually secondary to what's happening. In the smaller story, Tahir makes it about the character's motivations not the world shaking events that surround them. It was actually somewhat refreshing. 

The characters make this book move. Laia and Elias are great characters. Hurt, wounded and damaged, they figure out what they need to do to survive the brutality of their existence. Elias's mother, the Commandant, is chillingly rendered and his best friend, Helene, is a young adult version of Brienne of Tarth but Tahir has the skill not to just make her a shade of that great character but breathe a whole other life into her. Elias's antagonists, the twins Marcus and Zac, are thinly made, almost caricatures, though I wished there was a little more Zac as I feel he was underused in the story. Many of the background characters in the Elias thread are stock characters, almost necessary in a cast this size, but they work well, filling the roles they need to fill when they do. 

In the Laia thread, from the moment we meet them, the members of the Rebellion are all menace. As a reader, you aren't to trust them from moment one and that is a real strength. The idea that the rebels aren't these righteous warriors of truth has been put forth before, but is often ignored. Tahir does a great job with it. Laia's interactions with the Commandant are cringe worthy and I mean that in the nicest way possible and the mystery of Cook has me wondering if that's a question that will ever get answered. 

The romantic elements were well done, though the Keenan/Laia pairing seemed forced at times. The tension between Elias and Helene is just taut and well written. It's not so much a love triangle as it is a love dodecahedron, so to speak. And it doesn't get in the way of the story.

The world building is sound and simple. I don't mean this in a bad way. Fantasy writers have a million different directions to go in when building a world, some create vast histories of their worlds and can tell you who ruled an empire three thousand years ago then will make sure you know that they know that which then distracts from the story. Others are sparse, concentrating on the action within their book then they wind up with dozens of inconsistencies and holes that can also distract from the story.  There's a balance and Tahir nails it. Others still fill their world up with complicated names and ideas that can confuse the heck out of a reader or hit us with the Our Elves Are Better trope too many times. Tahir doesn't do this, instead calling her people Martials and Scholars and Mariners. Makes sense right? The history is there, but it's not relevant to the story, so we don't need to know it.  She tells us what we needed to know about the Empire and the Blackcliff school, which were important to the story, without sounding infodumpy. It's really well done and I liked it.

The one aspect of the book that really struck me was the relationship between the commandant of the Blackcliff school and Elias. (SPOILER: She's his mother.) I love a well done, complex child-parent relationship, especially in a fantasy book. I love writing them and think that when I get back into a rewrite on my SCIONS book, I'm going to make the parental issues with the book more apparent. That being said, the thing that struck me about this the most was that is was a son and mother. It's just not one you see a lot of in YA fantasy. The Commandant is just terrific. She's chilling and cold and amazingly diabolical. The chapter when she finally explains herself to Elias is just some of the best writing I've ever read in this genre or any other.

My only complaint, and this is strickly a personal thing and it has no bearing on the quality of this book, is that I wish it were 3rd person close and not 1st person. Seriously. That's my only gripe. And it's just a me not you thing.

AN EMBER IN THE ASHES is one of those rare books that can sate both the YA fan and the epic fantasy fan in me. It does what it does incredibly well and is a joy to read. It's intense and unputdownable. It's definitely going to be on my Best of 2016 list. 

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