“All of these rebels, any of whom fought alongside my parents, suddenly know whose child I am. They’ll want me to be fearless and charismatic like Mother. They’ll want me to be brilliant and serene, like Father. But I am not any of those things.”
Laia is a Scholar, a member of the defeated caste that formerly ruled what is now the Martial Empire. The Scholar rebellion against their Martial rulers rages on, but Laia and her family take no part in it, eking out a meager existence in the Scholar’s Quarter, ever fearful of Martial raids. One night, their worst fears come true when a Mask—one of the Martials’ elite soldiers—shows up at their door and takes her brother Darren prisoner. In order to free Darren, Laia reaches out the Rebellion, all the while knowing that the people who betrayed her parents to their deaths may still be part of that movement. The leader of the rebellion reluctantly offers to help free Darren, but only if Laia undertakes a dangerous mission; posing as a slave, she must infiltrate Blackcliff Academy, where the Empire trains the Masks. Elias Veturius is only days away from escaping Blackcliff forever, finally getting out from under the thumb of his mother, the brutal Commandant of Blackcliff, and his grandfather, the formidable head of Gens Veturia. Then a visit from an Augur—one of the mysterious and supposedly immortal figures who founded Blackcliff—throws his plans into disarray. Ancient prophecies are coming to fruition, and Elias is caught in the middle, forced to fight for his life, even as his conscience compels him to try to save his mother’s latest slave girl from death in her service.
In alternating short chapters, Laia and Elias take turns narrating An Ember in the Ashes. The short chapters often end with cliff-hangers, making for a tantalizing and fast-paced read. Sabaa Tahir’s world is Roman-inspired, but incorporates mythology from the more eastern reaches of the Roman Empire that tend to be forgotten in favour of the Greek influences. However, most of the action takes place at Blackcliff, which is designed to be a brutal indoctrination that will create the Empire’s most effective, unquestioning soldiers, who are trained up from children. The violence is pervasive, as is the threat of sexual assault, which can be tiresome if realistic. But more than the violence and the action, it is also a story about Laia and Elias grappling with expectations, both those of their families, and those placed on their by their respective societies, and figuring out what standard they want to hold themselves to.
Elias and Laia are both intriguing, well-rounded characters, but we find others at the periphery of the story. Helene, Elias’ long-time best friend, and the only female student at Blackcliff is strong, fiery, and determined. While Blackcliff has not alienated her the way it has alienated Elias, she too is still holding on to her humanity, and hoping that by serving the Empire she can somehow make it a better place. Elias’ mother, Keris Veturia, was the only female student of her generation, but unlike Helene, she becomes a dark and vicious figure, horribly twisted by her past. The predicaments of these secondary characters intrigued me, and I longed to get inside their heads and experience their point of view as well as that of Elias and Laia. Happily, it sounds like Helene will feature prominently in A Torch Against the Night, due out in August 2016.
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