There’s a summer blockbuster feel to many of the scenes in Sabaa Tahir’s young adult novel “An Ember in the Ashes.” In one chapter, Elias, an elite soldier, must face his greatest fear by crossing a desert strewn with the bodies of those he has killed or may kill in the future. And IT’S NOT HARD TO IMAGINE THE BOOMING DOLBY SOUNDTRACK THAT COULD ACCOMPANY this description of a STUDENT assembly at Blackcliff Military Academy: “Three thousand bodies swing forward, three thousand pairs of boots snap together, three thousand backs jerk as if yanked straight by a puppeteer’s hand. In the ensuing silence, you could hear a tear drop.”
It’s not surprising that “An Ember in the Ashes” has already been optioned by Paramount. This debut is a high-adrenaline mishmash. The setting, the Empire, blends hints of ancient Rome at its harshest with elements of Islamic mythology and high fantasy. Like a gruesome video game or a reality TV survival competition, the story taps into both our human fascination with violence and our aversion to suffering. There are love triangles (yes, plural, as in more than one), monsters, battle scenes, characters who are purely good or purely evil, cringe-inducing tortures, steamy glances, and more than a few moral conundrums. “An Ember in the Ashes” is simultaneously too much and not enough.
The story alternates between the perspectives of 17-year-old Laia, a member of the conquered Scholars, and 20-year-old Elias, a ruling Martial who is training to be a “Mask” at Blackcliff. Elias doesn’t want to be a faceless killer — so much so that the silver mask that gives the Empire’s elite fighters their name has not melded to his face even though he’s the academy’s best soldier. Laia wants to rescue her brother Darin, the only family she has left, from a Martial prison. Both protagonists are willing to risk the desperate lives they’ve known for freedom they can barely imagine. Laia agrees to be enslaved in the ruthless Commandant’s household in order to spy for the Scholar’s Resistance with the promise that the rebels will rescue her brother. Elias takes part in a series of competitions to be the next emperor in the hopes that if he survives he’ll be set free. To further complicate matters, the Commandant is Elias’s mother (father unknown) as well as the woman who murdered Laia’s rebel parents and sister.
INEVITABLY , Elias’s and Laia’s paths cross, and the stage is set for an epic romance. “I’d seen life bursting through, chaotic and alluring beneath the shadow of the mask,” Laia says about meeting Elias’s gaze. “I’d seen fire and desire, and my heart had thumped faster.” Unsurprisingly, given the popularity of series in YA literature, “An Ember in the Ashes” ends with questions unanswered, leaving the possibility for sequels. Exactly what happened to Laia’s parents? Is Helene, a fellow Mask who’s in love with Elias, an Empire sycophant or something more? Who is Elias’s father, and why does his mother hate him so much?
Exciting? Definitely. But despite the abundance of plot elements (or maybe because of them), it’s difficult to be fully invested in the main characters. Like the many, many other star-crossed romantic leads of many, many other YA novels, Laia and Elias are attractive, reluctant heroes painted with thick strokes. Laia berates herself for being cowardly almost to the point of protesting too much. And Elias’s emotional intelligence rating rises and falls like a buoy in a ship’s wake even as the explanation for why he’s so different from other Masks is underdeveloped. By the novel’s end, I found myself hoping that the B-team romantic candidates would step up their games.
At over 450 pages, “An Ember in the Ashes” has numerous page-turning chunks — part three, the last in the novel, is particularly dramatic. That said, I hope that if/when the book becomes a movie that Hollywood doesn’t cut the moments of poetry, the dramatic lulls in the breakneck action.
When Laia tells Elias, “Let your guilt be your fuel. Let it remind you of who you want to be. Draw a line in your mind. Never cross it again. You have a soul. It’s damaged, but it’s there.” The cameras should linger. The director should underline the command to pause. Movie viewers should be given time to ponder the ideas and awe at the possible metaphors and meanings of the world Tahir has created.
In the Empire, the Scholars are not allowed to read and, like so many bullies and power-seekers who hide behind ideologies to justify the terrible things they do, their oppressors wear masks. “An Ember in the Ashes” suggests that such masks (literal or figurative) don’t work. Not forever, ANYWAY. Masks only cover faces. It’s actions that show who we are. “Life is made of SO MANY moments that mean nothing,” says Laia, lamenting when she failed to help her brother. “The moment Darin called out — that WAS SUCH A moment.” But ANOTHER moment, pages and pages later, when she decides to act, that means everything, too.
AN EMBER IN THE ASHES
By Sabaa Tahir
Razorbill, 464 pp., $19.95
Chelsey Philpot’s YA novel, “Even in Paradise,” was published in October. Connect with her on Twitter @chelseyphilpot.