“I’d rather die than live with no mercy, no honor, no soul.”
― Sabaa Tahir, An Ember in the Ashes
An Ember In The Ashes grapples with questions of loyalty versus morality. If your loyalty means the death and destruction of thousands of lives, and the slavery of a people, what is it worth to you then?
In the above quote, Tahir captures one of the basic themes of the book-would you rather live as soulless being with money and power or would you rather die with honor, not having participated in a cruel and sadistic ruling dynasty?
The book makes you feel everything: rage, fear, disgust, terror. The society Tahir has built is based off ancient Rome, but the characters could be from the world we live in today. Tyrants, war, oppression, resistance: the best fantasy novels speak to you about your present world using a fantastical one, and An Ember does this.
The novel is rich and the world is well-constructed. Tahir spends time fleshing out her characters, as well as the supernatural, telling us just enough to keep us guessing but always leaving room for the trilogy to develop. No one here is a single faceted or straight-forward villain or hero.
Tahir is one of the few diverse writers in fantasy, in writing in general. Her world is set in ancient Rome, and her characters are just as diverse as the real ancient Rome, rather than the white-washed one that Hollywood produces. The people there have noticeably different names from the Western-European world we are used to. Some have Middle Eastern and Indian names and backgrounds. I like that she brought diversity into her novel, and this is really important, especially for young people of color who rarely see themselves represented.
One last thing: there’s a lot of people shipping Helene and Elias, and that’s your right. However, you need to think about these characters. Elias has spent his life hating the society he was accidentally born into, he has the empathy and the compassion to see that the slavery and oppression of The Scholars is cruel and unfair. Helene does not. Over and over again, she shows a disregard for Scholar life. She does not try to stop Elias only because she is concerned for his safety, but because she genuinely believes these people’s lives are not worth anything.
Helene is your rich, white feminist. She is afraid of the patriarchy, misogyny and rape culture of the world she lives in. However, rather than banding together with the poorer women of her society who live through the same and worse, she is disdainful of them, seeking only her liberation, not caring one whit about the other women being raped and killed around her, just because they are deemed less worthy by her society.
Someone like Elias who sees injustice and works against it should never be with someone who sees it and only cares when it is directed at her. It sickens me to see people wanting them to be together. I suppose someone who upholds a society which rapes, plunders and oppresses others means nothing to them.
Recommendation: For all lovers of fantasy, as well as readers interested in diversity. YA with dark themes and issues that are well-explored. Good for mature teenagers interested in social justice and the world. Language is accessible and immersive, great for building vocabulary and learning terminology of ancient worlds.