A remarkable work of dark YA fantasy—beautifully crafted, and laden with Arabian mythology.
Told in alternating dual POV from the perspectives of spy/slave Laia and unwilling soldier Elias, readers experience this alternate history-feeling dystopian fantasy from two very different sides of society. Ember In The Ashes takes place in what one might imagine from an ancient Roman Empire’s brutal takeover of a more scholarly Middle Eastern nation (without the word ‘Roman’ ever coming into play, of course). A world in which immortals, Jinn, efrits, ghuls, and wraiths exist and affect things—though very few humans seem cognizant or capable of detecting these supernatural forces.
It was a little hard for me to get attached to Laia at first. Not because she wasn’t a sympathetic character, but because I kept expecting her to die in literally every scene. She's constantly fearful, hopelessly outmatched, and shows no signs of the competency needed to keep herself alive. I appreciated that she wasn’t some ridiculously awesome warrior woman, but as the daughter of resistance fighters, a handful of survival skills would have made some sense. (Also would have gone a long way in helping me risk rooting for her outside of the basic instinct for railing against injustice.) But I don’t mean it to sound like more than half a criticism, because this aspect also highlights the degree of high-wire tension that’s maintained for most of the book.
Tahir’s writing is impressive. Her voice is strong, her worldbuilding immersive, and her descriptions evocative. It’s hard not to appreciate how the supernatural elements are gradually woven into the worldbuilding. For a good bit of the book, I found the overarching storyline more of a compelling drive than the main characters (especially since the chances of Laia surviving felt incredibly slim.) But I didn't really mind. I was curious enough just speculating over what was happening on a grander political and preternatural scale.
Content Note: This is a cruel, domineering society entrenched in misogyny; and as such, it’s made clear that rape is a commonplace occurrence. But while it is frequently implied, it is never shown in any graphic detail. (There is an attack on Laia at one point that seems to have this intent, but graphicness of that scene is purely in the violent brutality.) If the mere mention of rape is triggering to you, this is something you may want to consider before reading. This reviewer personally found its handling realistic-yet-tactful. And while the violence and torture places it solidly in the mature YA range, I wouldn’t call even those elements gratuitous.
For those who don’t care much for love triangles, be forewarned that there’s something of a love parallelogram going on here. Elias has an obsession-at-first-sight reaction to Laia (as do a couple of other male characters). And the romance angle seems a touch rushed into, what with how very little most of the characters get to know each other and that constant threat of death looming over everything. (Helene and Elias’ confusing best-friend feeling for each other is easily the most organic and convincing of the pairing options, mainly because they have so clear an established prior history.)
The leave-off is a bit of a cliffhanger, with lots of questions left wide open. But really, the only reason I haven’t charged on into the next book is that I’m waiting for the third one to release. ?