Monday, January 9, 2017

#3 - An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

For the Book Riot Read Harder 2017 Challenge, I needed to read a fantasy book. Fantasy isn't a genre I normally pick up (I'm assuming the Game of Thrones books are the last fantasy books that I read), but I love a Hobbit as much as the next guy. An Ember in the Ashes, by Sabaa Tahir came out a few years ago and was evidently a Times bestseller, but I hadn't heard of the series until book 2 made someone's year-end list on the AV Club recently.

The story alternates perspectives between Laia, a slave girl of the Scholar people, and Elias, a gladiator-like warrior from the Martial empire. In the opening chapters, Laia's family is murdered, she finds the Resistance, and infiltrates Blackcliff, the military academy that Elias is about to graduate from. Elias, in the meantime, has a super-hot and super-awesome best friend gladiator-ess named Helene, attends Blackcliff, and is thinking of deserting the empire. (I wouldn't make a point of the super-hot, but it's brought up more than twice in the book.) Elias quickly finds himself involved in the Tri-wizard Tournament to see who gets to be the new Emperor, while Queen Cersei tries to rig the outcome to make sure he doesn't win.

That paragraph sounds much more negative than the book actually deserves. It's hard to establish a wholly creative and new fantasy word, and Tahir writes a gripping yarn that makes the 450 pages go really really quickly. Whether this is because of or in spite of the well-worn template that Ashes follows, it was definitely an interesting read. The first-person narration of a slave trying to just stay alive instead of purposefully overthrow an Empire was new; the first-person narration of Elias brings to mind the Kingslayer in some regards, but because he's also still essentially a college student, there is a nice amount of self-doubt and confusion that freshens things up. In the meantime, I wish Tahir had come up with better names for the Empire and its member ethnicities than "the Martials," "the Scholars," and "the Mariners," etc. That may sound like a small nit to pick, but world-building in fantasy novels is important, and an entire race being known as "the Scholars" is just, well, goofy. The AV Club article I mentioned earlier said that the series really gets going in book 2, where the characters get a lot more attention, and I do plan on reading A Torch Against the Night, because there was a lot to like in this book - probably why I'm so critical of what I feel needed another reworking.

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