This is the book I never intended to read.
I’ll explain. I first heard of Sabaa Tahir through Instagram, probably through one of the many YA authors that I follow on that platform, and I fell in love with her immediately. She is in full command of some truly delicious snark, makes her vegetables talk to each other, speaks candidly about publishing and being a writer, and is just wonderful and hilarious in general. I bought her first novel, An Ember in the Ashes, but could never bring myself to open it, because I couldn’t risk not liking the novel. I needed Tahir’s wonderful personality to remain unsullied. Plus, by the time it entered my literary radar in 2016, the United States as I knew it was already careening to its own hellish version of a dystopia, and I didn’t want to inhabit a fictional one.
I finally cracked open An Ember in the Ashes a few months ago, and let me tell you, I have never been more annoyed with myself. Tahir’s first novel is one of the best written, most compelling stories I’ve read in years, and I can’t believe I willingly deprived myself of Laia, Elias, and their heart-stopping journeys to upend the violent Empire in which they live. Tahir’s dual-POV story is told at an almost breakneck speed, and her characters come from two different worlds – Laia from the enslaved Scholar population, and Elias from the elite Martial force that wants to maintain power at any cost. But after Laia infiltrates Blackcliff Academy in order to rescue her imprisoned brother, she and Elias find themselves bound together on an unexpected and completely unforgettable journey.
Michael Crichton, Meet Sabaa Tahir
Jurassic Park impacted an entire generation of moviegoers – I still see brontosauri and T-Rexes ducking out of sight whenever I drive past a forest in the night, and y’all already know that the soundtrack is tremendous. I read Michael Crichton’s novel on which the movie adaptation was based while I was in college, and I was floored when I found myself rushing through the pages, heart racing, palms sweating, just as I’d felt when I watched the movie for the first time as a child. Plotwise, new ground wasn’t being broken – I already knew what was going to happen, thanks to repeat viewings of the film on AMC. But because Crichton was such a talented writer, his clear prose could revitalize a familiar plot into one of thrilling suspense. Every word made me feel like I was entering Jurassic Park for the first time.
Sabaa Tahir’s writing is reminiscent of the late, great Crichton because she brings a fresh energy to the beats of dystopian fantasy we all know and love. Each sentence is carefully crafted to push you forward in the text, and each chapter manages to end on some vital piece of information that left me gasping aloud or flipping urgently to the next page. Part of this energy comes from the first, present-tense storytelling that Tahir uses to perfection, a move that many writers have yet to attempt, let alone master, but most of it comes from damn good writing. It’s visceral and magnetic, and with it she creates a completely immersive experience. Your physical body as a reader will understand where the story is going instinctively, but your mind will still reel from the unique plot twists and emotional upheaval. Tahir accomplishes with wit and delicacy what all writers and artists aspire to do: she takes universal truths and crafts them into a story that only she can tell.
The Appeal of Vulnerability
As I plod through the first draft of my own novel, I’m aware of just how difficult it is to make your characters real and readable. I say readable instead of likable because as is the case in White Dancing Elephants, compelling characters that keep readers reading don’t have to follow any specific moral or behavioral code to be worthy of being protagonists. Similarly to how Chaya Bhuvaneswar imbues her characters with real flaws and imperfections, Sabaa Tahir introduces her characters first by their weaknesses, namely Laia’s fear and Elias’s deep hatred of the system in which he has been raised, and grounds her story in each of them trying to find a specific kind of salvation.
I’ll talk about Laia specifically, because I’ve never really read a character who thinks so much like me. Her brother is kidnapped at the beginning of the story, and it takes her a while to fully accept the challenge of going after him and trying to save him because she is so ridden with fear and anxiety about her own worth and ability. Laia puts herself down constantly in her thoughts, and questions herself at every turn. As the novel progresses, you watch her become more confident in her choices, but the fact that she is introduced with this mental brake made me connect to her instantly.
When it comes to young female heroines in literature, I feel like many authors rely on making them strong or hardened or unemotional at the beginning of the story because they’re trying to upend stereotypes about women and their abilities. In this sense, Tahir takes a literary risk by trusting that readers will connect to Laia’s self-doubt and her beliefs that she is unworthy of the task that has been thrust on her, and that they will understand that this vulnerability is merely a sign of her humanity, not a trait fixed by her gender. Tahir prioritizes her readers and creates beautifully readable, relatable characters that you want to root for.
Keep On Keeping On: A Lesson in Endurance
So it’s 2019, and we’re knee-deep in the middle of a horrifying presidency and a country that is finally showing its divided roots. The fact that I not only inhaled this novel but drew inspiration from it as well marks it as a truly effective dystopian fantasy. An Ember in the Ashes reminds me that while there is no knowing what the future holds, the human spirit can and must endure against all odds.
Throughout the novel, Laia and Elias experience systemic and personal oppression at the hands of the Martial regime. Elias’s mother Keris is the sociopathic Commandant of Blackcliff Academy, and she knows exactly how to torment her son and Laia, who is working as her personal servant. Our protagonists undergo tremendous emotional and physical violence through Keris and the methods of the Martial empire, but each time they fall, they rise back up, even if it’s slow and bloody, and even if no one else is around to see them do it.
There’s also a specificity to why Laia and Elias fight and endure. They’re not fighting tyranny in general – they’re fighting for knowledge and personal freedom instead of violence, which hits home hard for me. As someone who struggles daily with the tolls of activism and advocating for living a life in which we actually challenge the culture and systems that have created us, it is really hard for me to keep fighting and not be overcome by the fear of what might be. But Tahir reminds me in the most beautiful way that the only thing “more powerful [and] more indestructible” than fear is my spirit and my heart. I thank her for writing exactly the novel that I need in these dark times.
Don’t make the same mistake I did. Run, don’t walk to your nearest bookstore/library/computer/phone and snatch this book up. Tahir’s debut is electrifying and moving and there are already TWO SEQUELS OUT, thank God. Read, read, read!