Book Review: An Ember in the Ashes
by Sabaa Tahir
Razorbill (Penguin), 2015
There’s a strange and almost bewitching contradiction at the heart of Sabaa Tahir’s debut novel An Ember in the Ashes: this is simultaneously one of the most exciting Young Adult fantasy novels of the year and one of the most derivative novels of any kind or genre ever written. A smart computer algorithm could conceivably account for the first and couldn’t help but account for the second, but in her dust jacket photo, Tahir looks like a smart, pretty young woman, not an AuthorBot3000. And this is believable in its way: only a human would have the chutzpah to offer up to readers so energetically a book in which there is not one single original though, concept, character, or word of dialogue. The AuthorBot3000 wouldn’t have been able to summon the nerve.
Tahir’s novel is set in a world ruled by the Empire created by the Martials, who centuries ago conquered a people called the Scholars and subjugated them as oppressed and second-class citizens. “Once,” as one of Tahir’s characters reflects, “the Scholar Empire was home to the finest universities and libraries in the world. Now, most of our people can’t tell a school from an armory.”
Among the oppressed scholars is a young girl named Laia who’s nothing special, full of self-doubt, frumpy hair, no big deal, a wallflower really, certainly nobody who’d ever hold the fate of the Empire in her … compulsive, jaw-locking yawning commences involuntarily. Laia (hey, you know, I never noticed it before, but in certain lights you’re kind of Hollywood beautiful…) is, down to the last tiny detail of her description, exactly the same as two hundred young heroines of this kind of fiction.
She has a brother, Darin, who’s revealed early on in the novel to be an intrepid spy on the workings of the Empire’s key steelworks. He’s captured by the legionaries of the Empire (led by a Mask, the chrome-faced super-enforcers of the Empire), and since plain jain Laia is naturally desperate to reach him and free him, she does what any clumsy, unimaginative schlump would do: she contacts the Resistance (there’s always a Resistance, and although the Empires in question can never seem to track them down to eliminate them, plain-jane nothing-special girls are practically tripping over them) in the hopes they’ll help her rescue her brother. The agree, but they have a condition of their own: they want Laia to infiltrate the infamous Blackcliff Academy, the elite legionary training camp of the Empire, whose commandant is a caricature of dominatrix ruthlessness.
The book splits its narrative focal point between Laia chapters (in which she’s fumbling and berating herself) and chapters centering on a young man (take a wild guess how attractive he is – go ahead, guess) named Elias, who’s a perfectly-trained Mask-cadet fond of mentally repeating things like “The field of battle is my temple … The swordpoint is my priest. The dance of death is my prayer. The killing blow is my release.” But Elias secretly has a heart; he secretly has feelings; he secretly remains unindoctrinated … in other words, Elias is, down to the last tiny detail of his description, exactly the same as two hundred young heroes of this kind of fiction. Tahir is even obliging enough to make him the son of the dominatrix commandant. The thing is so clockwork you could practically use it to get to work on time.
“Life is made of so many moments that mean nothing,” a character thinks, in exactly the same sentiments and exactly the same words as every other hero in every other book of this kind has thought. “Then one day, a single moment comes along to define every second that comes after.” In its own way, it’s stunning: it’s all so completely, comprehensively unoriginal that it would have to improve even to be reach the level of plagiarism.
Which makes it that much stranger that the book is so addictive to read, although maybe not so strange after all, since such a conundrum is easily explained by one thing: Tahir’s storytelling ability. She’s pared her dual narratives down to minimal, propulsive prose, and she keeps he plots hurtling along as she steadily verges them closer to each other. As a result, An Ember in the Ashes is like a bag of little gourmet chocolate bars that you keep popping down the hatch one after the next for the sheer stimulation of doing so.
Tahir has commented that although An Ember in the Ashes could be a stand-alone novel, she could also easily see herself writing about these characters for the rest of her life. If there’s anybody in her life advising her to abandon that idea, she should listen to that advice. She should by all means keep writing fiction – even through the nearly-impenetrable fog of genre cliches choking this debut, the real potential of her talent is obvious – but she should try an invigorating thought experiment: for her next book, she should write something totally unlike anything she’s ever read.