In the YA Diversity Book Club, we chat about the latest YA books that celebrate diversity. Our book club includes Sandie @ Teen Lit Rocks, Kristan @ We Heart YA and Kristina @ Gone Pecan. Each month we’ll focus on one book with a book review (our discussion chat) and bonus features.
Our April book club pick is AN EMBER IN THE ASHES by Sabaa Tahir. An Ember in the Ashes is our first fantasy read, which was a fun change of pace. I feel like this book is going to be BIG – Hunger Games big I don’t know, but the book has been optioned for film. This book gave us a lot to chat about, from the setting and world building to the character development and violence. You can see what we thought about the book in our discussion transcript below. Thank you so much to Penguin Razorbill for providing us with review copies of An Ember in the Ashes. Check out the epic book trailer and read a little more about the book:
An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, Hardcover, 464 pages, Penguin/Razorbill April 28, 2015
About the Book:
Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.
Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.
It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.
But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.
There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.
Summarize your overall thoughts on An Ember in the Ashes:
We Heart YA: It took me a few chapters to really get into EMBER. But the writing was good (with some really beautiful lines) and the characters were compelling. At a certain point, I got hooked and couldn’t stop.
We Heart YA: There are definitely overlaps with other YA dystopians and stories about war, but at the same time, I felt like the details in EMBER were fresh and interesting.
The Reading Date: Honestly, I was worried to start this one because fantasy is not my favorite genre, but surprisingly this was a fast read for me. I was really caught up in the story. And I agree about the writing, Kristan- the author weaves a good story and the words were beautiful but not distractingly so.
Teen Lit Rocks: I think most genre books are somewhat derivative; it didn’t bother me that there were aspects of this book that seemed similar of other dystopian and fantasy novels. I know the pacing isn’t pulse-quickening at first, but I was fully invested in what would happen. Tahir definitely hooked me in, even though the romantic aspects were sometimes exasperating (I am not used to each protagonist having two viable love interests. A love triangle, I understand — even though I usually loathe them. But a square is quite another thing).
Gone Pecan: I didn’t even consider them each having two love interests. From the start I had a set plan in my mind and didn’t waver.
We Heart YA: Lol I actually thought it was refreshing and pretty believable for teens to feel attracted to multiple people…
The book takes place in a fantasy world inspired by Ancient Rome. How did the setting enhance the story?
We Heart YA: I did not realize the setting was inspired by Ancient Rome! The little that I had read before starting the book said that Tahir had been inspired by her time as an editor on the foreign desk at the Washington Post, and something about Kashmir, so I assumed the story would have a flavor from that region… When that didn’t manifest (beyond referring to the supernatural elements as jinns and such) I was definitely confused and a bit disappointed. But knowing now that it is inspired by Ancient Rome, I can see that influence.
The Reading Date: It seems like there were Roman elements and Middle Eastern elements and that added interest to me. I know the author did a lot of research on Ancient Rome for the book and I think that comes across. I’m glad you mention the supernatural elements and jinns, Kristan. Sometimes the magical elements of the story lost me, but I was really into the characters’ journey.
Gone Pecan: I honestly didn’t see a huge Roman element outside of the pure violence. I would have loved more on the magical/supernatural side. I feel like the surface was barely scratched there.
What themes stood out to you the most? How are those themes relatable to teens today?
We Heart YA: Right off the bat, I loved the tension between the two protagonists and their parents. Elias hates and fears his mom and doesn’t want to be anything like her. Meanwhile, Laia’s parents were revered, and she’s worried that she’ll never live up to their reputations. The feelings are opposite, yet parallel. And I think so many people (YA or any age) can identify with that. Wanting to be like your parents — and also wanting to be nothing like them, haha.
The Reading Date: Ooh good observations, Kristan! Laia’s a girl who has lost everything and is at a real turning point in her life- having to fight to survive. Elias’ situation seems quite desperate too, going against everything he’s ever known.
What did you think of the world building?
We Heart YA: Part of why the beginning was hard for me to get into is that there were so many names/nouns thrown at me. Character names, societal terms, locations, etc. So on the one hand, I think that’s evidence of how richly drawn this world is. How much thought Tahir put into creating her fantasy realm. But on the other hand, for me it was like being thrown into the deep end rather than gradually easing me into the water.
We Heart YA: Whether Roman or Kashmiri, I do wish the cultural influences had been stronger. I was expecting EMBER to be more like GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS or SHADOW AND BONE. (Or maybe the mix of Roman and Kashmiri influences ended up watering each down? I don’t know.)
The Reading Date: Good point that perhaps the mix of cultural influences perhaps diluted the message. For me, I like “fantasy light” and I think this book is pretty accessible for those that are not fantasy fanatics. It seemed like the author put a lot of thought into the fantasy world she created, and I could see the scenes play out as I read.
We Heart YA: Yeah, it’s a very approachable fantasy.
Did any parts of the book make you uncomfortable? If so, why?
The Reading Date: The scenes of brutality and sexual assaults were hard to read, though I understand that this is a violent world the author is portraying.
We Heart YA: I actually thought the mature content was handled pretty well. (Or am I just too desensitized to violence and rape culture…?) We don’t actually see most of the worst stuff, we just hear about it. And what we do see isn’t overly graphic or gory.
Teen Lit Rocks: The first time I read it, I noticed how often rape and the threat of rape was used, but it bothered me more when in reference to Helene. It would’ve been expected when thinking about a slave — certainly slave women in all cultures have been raped without a second thought; they’re property not consenting women… but when in reference to Helene, it really bothered me. As for the violence — it was no more difficult than the violence in most dystopian/fantasy novels that involve war.
We Heart YA: Did you read it more than once??
Teen Lit Rocks: I got it back in November and read it then, so I re-read big chunks and skimmed others in order to review it and discuss it with you all.
Gone Pecan: The rape talk bothered me no matter who it was in reference to. . . the possibility of rape was thrown around so much like it was ok that I stopped reading several times so I could walk away. I know rape exists and I know it needs to be talked about but constantly and so casually? Also, in regards to Helene she didn’t attempt to stop it when it was happening around her and for that alone I never warmed up to her.
What are your takeaways about the diversity present in the book? Did the novel broaden your perspective in some way?
We Heart YA: Like I said earlier, I was kind of disappointed that the book turned out not to be that strongly influenced by the Kashmir region. I’m actually not sure whether I would really classify this as a diverse read… but it was written by a woman of color, and that’s significant!
Teen Lit Rocks: It fits in with the WNDB mission of more books by diverse writers, but the content isn’t what I think of when I read a “diverse” book. But because it’s by a woman of color, I still consider it a diverse read (but without representational themes).
Gone Pecan: Agreed. I didn’t get the feel of another culture being prominently displayed.
What did you think of the character development? Any characters particularly stand out to you?
We Heart YA: I loved Helene!
The Reading Date: Helene is very kick-ass. I liked Izzi the kitchen girl too- she’s pretty crafty and resourceful.
Teen Lit Rocks: Helene was awesome; I actually thought she was a fantastically well-rounded secondary character (and a great bestie/love interest for Elias). Izzi was intriguing; I wish we had learned a little more about her. She was so clever.
Gone Pecan: Ok, odd man out. I HATED HELENE. She was very hypocritical to me. I can’t even talk more about her because I truly didn’t like her. . .I thought she might redeem herself in the end to me but that didn’t happen. I’ve already texted several people about her and no one agrees with me. LOL
We Heart YA: Lol. Actually, I can understand that. If she were a real person, I probably wouldn’t like her either. She’s very much a product of her upbringing — she embodies some of the worst qualities of the Empire. At the same time, I saw her wanting to be more, to be better. She didn’t always (or maybe even often) succeed, but that complexity in her character appealed to me.
Did any particular passage or scene stand out to you?
Gone Pecan: I think the first time Laia walks into the Commandment’s room stuck out the most for me.
The Reading Date: The Moon festival scenes were memorable to me, and I enjoyed seeing the characters cut loose a little bit. (A little break from the brutality though still dangerous)
We Heart YA: The third Trial. I sort of knew what it would be, but the scope of it was larger than I expected, and the devastation afterward… 🙁
Teen Lit Rocks: There were several interactions between Elias and Helene that really got to me, like when he accuses her of being just like every other Mask or underestimates her ability to show compassion or understand how broken the system is… The Moon festival was also really sweet and funny considering how intense the rest of the story was!
The Reading Date: Elias and Helene did have an interesting dynamic. And can I say I thought the Mask’s were totally creepy.
As of now, this book is a standalone. Do you want a sequel or are you satisfied with the ending as is?
The Reading Date: I think this book will be big- and with a movie planned I find it hard to believe the series won’t continue. I’d like to read more personally.
We Heart YA: I *could* be satisfied with it as is… Like, I think Tahir left things in a good place. That said, I would totally read more!
Teen Lit Rocks: I thought it was a series (every fantasy seems to be these days), so I was disappointed to learn it was a standalone. I actually think it’s a tad too open-ended for a movie right now. Maybe she could be the rare fantasy writer to do a duology; I have enough trilogies on my bookshelves!
Gone Pecan: Agreed Sandie. (I may have a bit more to say in my post about this. . .)
We Heart YA: I’m all for more duologies. 🙂
The Reading Date: Hear, hear!
Anything else you’d like to add?
We Heart YA: I thought the dual POVs worked really well here. Each added to the story without covering the same ground. (More on that in my blog post!)
Teen Lit Rocks: Yes, I thought the dual narrative was handled well. Often the characters start to sound the same (cough-Allegiant-cough), but here it was very clear whose POV we were in, and how differently they experienced life in the Empire.
Gone Pecan: I liked the dual POV as well. . .the only thing that bothered me is the backtracking when we switched.
Teen Lit Rocks: Also, I think it’s sad that this book is suffering from a bit of backlash because of all the hype (especially about the bidding war for the option). I know several bloggers who’ve downgraded their reviews because it didn’t meet their expectations given how buzz-worthy the book has been for more than six months. Because I read it so early in the promotional cycle, I was immune to the hype and really really enjoyed it.
We Heart YA: Yeah, that’s the danger of the Hype Machine (which seems particularly strong in the YA community).
Have you read this book- what did you think?
BE SURE TO CHECK OUT ALL THE BOOK CLUB FEATURES:
- Kristina from Gone Pecan features an “Sequel Pro/Con“
- Sandie from Teen Lit Rocks features an “Author Q&A with Sabaa Tahir“
- Kristan from We Heart YA discusses “Seeing Both Sides: AN EMBER IN THE ASHES and Dual POVs“