The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Sunday, May 17, 2015

An Ember in the Ashes: review

Sabaa Tahir's An Ember in the Ashes is a Young Adult story about an evil empire and a few plucky kids who fight against it. It is (slightly) more original than that description sounds.

This empire is called the "Martial Empire", and its imperium hangs over ethnic groups with names like "Scholar" and "Tribal". This naming-convention has already annoyed other reviewers, who (rightly) see these names as placeholders and have wished for something less generic. Personally I was waiting to see if any character in the book would mention if the empire demanded worship of Mars the war god by name, but - no. The empire's just "Martial" because it's military and classical-themed.

The world in general seems like it developed while the author was writing the plot. We learn in the second half of the book (p. 261ish) that the Tribals do, in fact, own their own language(s). They're han- languages, reminiscent of "Northern Arabian" (para-Arabic) like Thamudic; the language we meet here is called Sadhese. The New York Times has mooted that it's nice to watch the Saif-tribe / Sadhese culture emerge from the generic Tribal label. Aristotle would insist that a better author should introduce that stuff earlier in the book. I say that we're being asked to experience the Saif and Sadhese in the eyes of one who grew up with them; I say that we need to have more of this information up front.

Speeeeaking of the classics (besides Aristotle), Tahir has read just enough of these to be dangerous. The Martial Empire is pretty much Sparta without the buggery (yo, Peter Brett!). The warrior caste, called "Masks", are trained in an almost-all-male academy, except for a few years where they're turned loose on the countryside to raid farms and forage.

One difference is that the augur caste, called "Augurs" (sigh), does stick a girl into the mix from time to time. This girl is an outlier on the right hand of the XX bellcurve - think, Brienne the Beauty - so, at least here, it's not annoying. It also causes the social problems you'd expect.

It was generally weird how little religion was noted here. The people swear by the "skies". Here we're dealing with yet another authorial placeholder.

I'm also unsure how well the Masks' masks are handled. Maybe I didn't read close enough into the book. But - for me - it was hard to know when the masks were on for the two main Mask characters, whom we sometimes meet without the masks. More reminders of the masks being on, when characters are interacting as Masks, would have helped me visualise the scenes better.

The two POV characters are Laia, a newly-orphaned Scholar; and Elias, the bastard son of the Commandant who leads the Masks. Laia joins a Resistance and tries to spy on the Commandant. Elias needs to pass the final tests to become a Mask, but secretly dislikes the Martial system; in fact, when we first meet him, he's trying to desert. Later on, Elias finds a reason to hang around just for those last tests - the Emperor is dying and the Augurs need to pick a new one, which, because magic (actually more likely because the Augurs want someone pliable, but the characters can't know that), must come from this particular graduating class. There are also various love-quadrangles since Laia and Elias meet and hit it off, but also have interests in their own circles. (Did I mention it's Young Adult?)

Another pause for rant here: "Elias"'s name is wrong for this world, and wrong in the wrong way. It is Semitic and so foreign to the classical culture of the Martials; and this much is acknowledged in the book. The problem here is that it's supposed to be Sadhese - from "Ilyaas". No, Tahir; NnnNO. It comes from "Elyaw" / "Elyahu" and it's Hebrew, and refers to the Biblical God. "Ilyaas" isn't any form of Arabian; it's Qur'anic, Arabic only by way of Syriac by way of the Septuagint. This looks like a deliberate nod to Islam (she seems to allude to this faith in the acknowledgements) in a structurally non-Islamic book. Frankly the book doesn't need it.

Beyond that faceplant, the characters are handled well. The females act like females, twisted by their environment. The males act mostly like males, which is a pleasant surprise in YA fiction. Because YA, there's no sex here, although several characters come right to the edge of it. (The book likes to tease.)

It might be just as well there's no sex, because the characters otherwise seem to interact with violence. Actually, although I'm not much for trigger-warnings... uh. The Commandant is about the most brutal woman in any book I've ever read. If you don't like floggings, brandings, beatings, scarrings this book is not for you. If you don't like bones snapping, ditto. The book even gets some attempted raeps in. As they say, This Is Sparta.

Anyway, the book is a mixed experience. I loved parts of it. But the worldbuilding was weak; especially since the book ends on a downer, implying a sequel. It needed an editor like the characters herein need to get laid... which is a lot. Maybe the author listens to criticism (because I'm not saying much that other critics haven't said) in which case, she should spend some time developing a "Silmarillion" for this world before doing any more work in it.

[From the Book Thread. This review was long, and I noticed some bugs crept in, and... even as long as it was, it missed some stuff. So, here it is again.]

posted by Zimri on 10:39 | link | 0 comments

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