sometimes you read a book and you know instantly – this is going to be huge. whether it’s the quality of the writing, the freshness of the premise, the way it piggybacks onto something already immensely popular, or just a case of right time/right zeitgeist – you just know.
and this book is going to be a star.
and it should be. this book is a perfect example of crossover YA. there is nothing juvenile about it, and it will have broad appeal to adults as well as teens. it has fantastic world-building, complex characters, gripping action, it’s frequently surprising, and it doesn’t shy from the horrific. this book is full of hard choices and actions that can’t be taken back. it is neither gentle nor pandering. from me, that is high praise – i get very fed up when books and movies resort to that lazy emotional/psychological manipulation where characters are on the brink of death but oh look! a savior! or – worse – “ta-daaaa – we can bring people back from the dead!”
that is not to say there aren’t close calls here, because there are. plenty of them. but there is always a cost to the reprieve, whether it be in corpses or sacrifices or heavy emotional baggage. the price of living is steep.
this book is doing a lot of work – it’s a fantasy novel, but it’s also addressing very important themes of oppression, literacy as power, the dangers of history repeating itself, compassion, the distinction between loyalty and thinking for yourself, the double sidedness of power, and that “right” and “wrong” are subjective and can be a matter of perspective. it’s huge, and it opens up a lot of moral dilemmas for discussion.
but to backtrack before i get all bogged down in vague atmosphere, dancing around specifics – this is an incredibly strong debut historical fantasy novel. it’s modeled on ancient rome, with many of the unsavory elements that entails in terms of slavery and casual rape. the rape is oft-referenced, threatened, and accepted as “how we do,” but there’s no specific scenes on-page, which is important to note. it’s always there in the background, and tahir manages to make its potential threatening enough without resorting to any gratuitous scenes of sexual assault. however, there’s a ton of nonsexual bloody violence, and it’s gory, powerful stuff.
the story is told from two sides – laia is seventeen years old, and comes from the scholars – a formerly flourishing people now ruled by the martial empire, stripped of their power and culture, living in poverty and illiteracy. laia’s family has been destroyed by the martials, specifically the masks, which are like the enforcers of the martial empire – shiny metal-masked soldiers who keep her people down through raids and brutal fear tactics. when her brother darin is arrested for treason, laia approaches the scholars’ secret underground movement known as the resistance to beg for help, capitalizing on her family’s past connection to the group to convince them. they agree to help, on the condition that she do her part, going undercover as a slave to the commandant of the blackcliff military academy, where the martials are trained to fight. it is an incredibly dangerous mission, and laia is such a fearful and naive girl, it seems doomed to fail, but laia is determined to rescue her brother, so into the belly of the beast she goes.
the second perspective is elias, whose mother is the brutal and feared commandant herself. elias has been trained in the elite special forces division of the martials – the masks. but he didn’t gain this position through nepotism – his mother despises him and abandoned him as a baby, and he spent the first six years of his life among the tribesmen who raised him before he was restored to the martials. he is now twenty, and on the verge of graduating from the masks, but he is disgusted with the brutishness of life among the martials, and is planning to desert on the eve of graduation, leaving everything behind, including his best friend helena.
unfortunately, fate intervenes and elias is visited by one of the augurs, a group of men and women who are these hooded, red-eyed mystics; the keepers of prophecies, operating at a completely different level behind the scenes, manipulating the present and the future while still maintaining a remove from the fray. in my mind they are a combination of
and elias is made an offer he cannot refuse. he, along with helena and the twins zak and marcus, has been chosen as an aspirant – to battle for the position of emperor. his first impulse is to refuse and stick with his desertion-plan, but the augur shows him a vision of his future that convinces him he needs to fulfill his destiny if he ever wants to be free from the martials.
the aspirants are put to a series of trials because what would a YA dystopia be without intricate battles and tests?? (or titles like “aspirants” for that matter) and they are grueling. and awesome, oh, and did i mention that it’s a battle to the death, and only two of them are meant to live through it – one as emperor, and one as second-in-command “blood shrike?” yeah, it’s like that.
so, while laia is enduring the cruelty of the commandant and tentatively spying and reporting back to the resistance, elias is fighting for his life in a series of escalating trials and distracted by the strange new feelings complicating his relationship with helena.
a lot happens. and it’s completely engrossing.
my enthusiasm for reading this book could overshadow my more critical faculties and i could say “this book is perfect!” because it was such a breath of fresh air and a true page turner filled with truly excellent characters and unprecedentedly badass situations, but for all the impressive parts, there were some things that clashed.
the commandant is just pure evil. like EEEEEEVVVIIILLLL evil evil evil. and that kind of unalloyed sadism can work in some books, but considering this one’s proficiency with character-nuance, it isn’t satisfying here. marcus is also pretty bad – but he’s young and he wants what he wants – he is still coming up in the world and trying to prove himself. and as bad as he is, even he is given a moment or two of humanity. the commandant is someone who has all the power she needs but still takes pleasure in mutilating the truly helpless. and that kind of flat-black character is just not interesting to read about. i love that she’s a woman and i love that she’s tiny because that’s less common in these military-YA-dystopias, but it just reads like overcompensation with the “look how baaaad i am!” there are no surprises in her character. she is just obstacle.
my other complaint is trickier and involves the romance bits. i am never much interested in the romantic elements of these YA books, and it’s what always reminds me “this is for teenagers!” i hate love triangles as a rule, but this book almost made me understand their appeal. there are TWO love triangles here, and while they are definitely the least interesting aspect of the book for me, i think they are handled in a more reasonable and interesting way than is typical. usually, there will be a protagonist torn between two equally attractive love interests but one is good and noble and one is baaaad but misunderstood. or they are both utter perfection and selfless and oh what a lucky girl! (because it is usually a girl) with this book, the notions of choice and destiny come into play in various ways throughout the story, with an emphasis on the impact of choice upon one’s character. and as an extension of that idea, the love triangles here are less about “which boy/girl is cuter?” and more about the actual personalities of the participants and how they complement or complete or mirror each other, and what path choosing one over the other would lead to. and it’s about making these assessments, of choosing and prioritizing what matters: a past of shared experiences or an understanding of loss, of strength or idealism or loyalty or a strength to attach to a weakness.
and i think with a teen audience, when you’re just starting to figure out what matters to you and who you want to be and there’s still a fluidity to your personality and your future, you are in this place where all the possibilities are attractive and that makes the love triangle plausible. so thank you, this book, for making the love triangle(s) make sense.
which might not seem like a complaint, but it is in the sense that while i was reading this, i did a lot of eye-rolling and “oh, good, they are almost going to kiss again!” so it was still a part of the book that dragged down the sophistication level for me, but it made more sense, contextually, than in most books.
my last complaint is a big one, and it really depends upon whether this is a standalone book or the first in a series.
when i closed this book i thought to myself, “what a fine and stirring place to leave the reader before the action resumes in the next book.”
and then i learned that the author said:
Right now, EMBER is a standalone. But I have my characters whole lives planned out, so I could write them forever.
and that’s unacceptable. it’s not that the story feels unfinished, but it feels like a tease. there’s too much that was set up here that was left unresolved. for example, throughout the book, we are given flashes of supernatural elements, and there is an expectation that these will evolve into something crucial to the plot. and they’re not, not really. they are involved without being resolved. if this is all we are going to get from this world, then their inclusion is nothing but a pretty prop over in the corner, contributing little. i assumed that this would be something built up more in subsequent books, but if this is it, then i thumbs-down it as being unnecessary and distracting.
and there are reunions i want to see and character arcs i require. i will not be satisfied with one story, so please – write them forever.
i feel like i have blabbed on and on without saying anything, but that seems to be where i’m at right now. all i know is that i loved this book, i’m in love with helena, and if i don’t get more from this world, i will be extremely unhappy.
so i guess this one is hers now, too.
i suppose i could go watch teevee…