Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember of Ashes is one of the books that intricately builds its fictional universe without making the plot movements slow down to a standstill. It took me a moment to recalibrate myself as I have never in earnest sat down to read a YA fantasy novel for academic research until now. Also, it had been a while since I read one even for recreational purposes. Once upon a time, I wanted to be a fantasy novel writer and illustrator. So, I used to devour series after series and make drawings of fantastical beings and maps of magical realms inspired by those readings. But, the occupational hazard of pursuing PhD in literature is that you do still get to read the books you love, but you cannot afford to pick up random books on a whim. I may be wrong, but my last pleasure reading must have been Leigh Bardugo’s Crooked Kingdoms in 2016?
Feelings of nostalgia set aside, what intrigued me the most was the cross pollination of Eastern and Western cultures that appear in Tahir’s creation. Readers are first presented with the cold brutality of the Martial Empire, which resembles the Roman Empire. Illustrians who are comparable to the patricians of Ancient Rome seem to all have Latinate family names like the hero of the novel, Elias Veturius. Then there are Mercators (merchant class) and Plebeians. Yet, what is interesting is that even the child of the most powerful gens is not exempt from being drafted to Blackcliff Academy, a military school that produces the most skilled and vicious of their soldiers called the masks. The Empire has subjugated other empires and nations via their military prowess and superior weapons made of Serric steel. Therefore, soldiers are given high status and honor. After nine years of life threatening and psychological abusive missions, those who survive are given masks made of silvery metallic substance that merges with their faces permanently. After three more years of training, they become fully fledged masks.
The heroine Laia, however, is a Scholar living a precarious life under the Martial rule. When her grandparents are murdered at the hand of a mask and her brother is taken to prison, she seeks aid from the Scholar Resistance. But they ask for a high price in return. She must become a personal slave to Keris Veturius, the Commandant of Blackcliff Academy and the mother of Elias, in order to be a rebel spy. All the enslaved are subject to unrelenting suffering, but one who possesses beauty such as Laia is especially at risk of sexual violence from the male students and guards of Blackcliff. The constant threat of rape makes some scenes difficult to read through. However, it does force us to confront the horrors of slavery without romanticizing it. This status of abjection is something that not even Laia can fathom. And it is remarkable that a girl of similar age, Izzy, who had been born into slavery is the one to offer friendship and help. The enslaved do suffer greatly. But they are depicted as having agency despite everything, which I appreciated very much.
The narration in the novel alternates between the perspectives of Laia and Elias. Their paths begin to converge when the immortal religious leaders of the Martial Empire, Augurs, pronounce that the current dynasty of Gens Taia will come to an end. The new emperor will be chosen by merit instead of blood at the Trials administered by the Augurs. Elias had been planning all along to desert Blackcliff right after graduation. But he is chosen as one of the four Ascendants with his best friend, Helen Aquilla, and his enemies, brothers Marcus and Zach Farrar. Augur Cain reads Elias’s mind and intervenes. He promises that Elias will be set free if he faces his fate at the Trials. Meanwhile, Laia is given the dangerous task of finding out and leaking information about them to the rebels.
“You are an ember in the ashes, Elias Veturius. You will spark and burn, ravage and destroy. You cannot change it. You cannot stop it.”
I had just read Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, when I picked up this book. So, I could not help but think how An Ember in the Ashes perfectly shows “how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word.” Though the masks with Illustrian background occupy the highest social strata, their lives seem to be stripped of civility so that they may serve the empire. The Trials seem to be designed specifically for that purpose. Their extremely cruelty ensure that even the Emperor become a part of the colonizing machine. Tahir further adds complexity to her fantastical world by giving it layered legacies of colonialism(s). While the Martials resemble Romans, Scholar seem to be based on Persians. I have not yet looked at author’s interviews. Yet, it is not surprising considering that the Roman Empire existed alongside two successive Persian Empires, Parthian and Sasanian. Though not much of history is revealed in the first book, it is indicated that Scholars too had once colonizers who committed genocide against djinns. With the powerful dijinns gone extinct, other magical beings such as efrits and ghouls have also gone into hiding until the Trials. As it is the case in our world, ones who suffer while these empires rise and fall are those at the margins of any empire, nation or tribe.
Most of the supernatural element draw inspiration from Arabian / Islamic mythologies, which leads to my point about cross-pollination. Greco-Roman empire is often idealized as the “isolated,” “pure,” and “timeless” mythical origin of the West / Occident / Europe. Yet, this is a historical incorrect invention that serves the 19th century imperialism, drawing an artificial line between the Occident and the Orient. So, it was fascinating to see Tahir bring the Romanesque empire squarely into the fantasy genre and reimagine the kinds of contacts that would have existed between Greece / Rome and the Middle East. Lately, I have been thinking about how the aesthetics of the fantasy genre can and do effectively expose the quotidian fantasies that masquerade as realities and truths.
Last but not least, there is the requisite romance plot. Elias and Laia have a quick spark and then slow burn kind of relationship due to the circumstances they are in. Having already read more than halfway into the sequel, A Torch in the Light, I am slightly annoyed at the devices that are designed specifically to keep star-crossed lovers apart just for the sake of keeping tension till the series ends. I was like ah of course, there is a catch. There is also the matter of romantic rivals in the form of Helene and a red-headed rebel fighter, Keenan. But overall, the dynamic between Laia and Elias was quite fascinating for me as those two are much more sophisticated versions of Romeo and Juliette. As an English major, I do have enduring fondness for Shakespearean plays. But, my discovery of the existence of Rosaline kind of permanently killed the appeal of Romeo and Juliette for me.
I am digressing a lot in this post. But I love finding out information about illustrators. So, here’s a link to the website of Jonathan Roberts who created the map for An Ember in the Ashes for any who might be interested! Fantastic Maps