In a land torn by the Haves and the Have Nots there are two people that could not be more different. Laia is a slave and a spy. Elias is a warrior and a dreamer. They discover that their only chance at freedom is with each other because they each are an ember in the ashes.
Sabaa Tahir’s writing ability is far above and beyond that of your average Young Adult author. It is no wonder that she has written a New York Times bestseller. Her debut novel explores what it means to be oppressed and how to individuals become oppressors. She delves into human trials and creates characters with depth and layers.
I especially appreciate her title characters. For once I found myself identifying more with the male character rather than the female something that has only happened one other time. Surprisingly, this may be because Laia, the main female, is actually realistic. (And I always love the dramatic characters.) She isn’t the fearless mockingjay or the intelligent Hermione. Laia is just a girl trying to do her best. She is scared and unsure, but steadfast and subtly courageous. Really Laia is what a good female role model should be. Being brave is not about being not-scared, it is about doing what you have to do no matter what.
On the other side of the equation is Elias. He dreams of a life beyond that which has been forced upon him. He dreams of freedom, love, and the big wide world. While he is a skilled fighter, Elias is much more complex than just being the muscle. Elias is what drove me to read this book late into the night. His role as the dreamer of this story is what caused me to identify so much with his character.
The beautiful thing about this book, however, is that alone neither of these characters drive a revolution. Neither of them are agents of change, they are just trying to get by. But, I’m sure in future books we will see that together these two become a revolution.
Aside from the main characters there are numerous side characters with their own interesting back stories. I believe that Tahir provides these additional characters with just enough story that they remain interesting but not so much that they become a distraction from the main tale, which can be a difficult balance to strike.
However, if I were to criticize this book in any way, there are a few troubles with pacing and world development. As far as pacing goes, I may be biased. I have heard so many incredible things about this book I was expecting it to completely wow me, but it started off pretty slow. By the middle of the book we had recovered back to an acceptable pace. Basically, if you find yourself unsure of the first few chapters, stick with it. It gets better.
World development is really the place where I felt there was room for improvement. I liked the different societies that Tahir developed and the schooling system, but other than the warriors called “The Masks” I felt that there wasn’t anything new here. We’ve seen the oppressed intellectual class and the oppressing warrior class with the fancy training school before. I wanted more. I wanted cultural exposition that I didn’t get. There were many cultures briefly introduced but I wanted more: more structure, more backstory, just more.
Then, enter the supernatural. Again, I didn’t get everything I wanted here. There is a solid foundation in this book for exploring the supernatural realm and all that it contains, but we didn’t quite make it. Laia and Elias encounter numerous beasties between them, but I feel like I have many more questions than answers. Where do the supernatural reside in this world? How can than be so present and so unknown? What is the source of power? I believe these are foundational concepts that every author needs to share with their readers in order for us to delve into this new world completely. I do have hopes however that the second book will contain more of this much needed explanation.
Don’t get me wrong. I really did enjoy this book, I just feel that we all need to be critical or everything will seem amazing. The characters were really great and it is obvious that Tahir focused a lot of energy on the overarching themes she wanted to explore in this story. The ideas of humanity, justice, fairness, oppression were all present throughout. I especially enjoyed that she included mature themes. She didn’t shy away from the difficult things that are part of any slave-based society. Starvation, brutality, and even sexual violence were included in the trials of these characters. I will give a small trigger warning for this book. There are several instances were sexual violence is mentioned, but the descriptions are not overly graphic and therefore appropriate for a young adult audience.
Overall, I give this book a 4 on my Young Adult scale.
Main Characters: 4/5 for Laia and 5/5 for Elias
Side characters: 4/5
World Development: 2/5
Pacing: 4/5 (2 for the beginning and 5 for the end)
Writing Quality: 5/5
Procrastination and Giggles,
The Red Queen
P.S. If you love young adult…go check out Sabaa Tahir’s Instagram here. She a geeky, book loving rockstar.