Ye gods! as they say in Coventree1. Burning, bleeding skies! as they say in the Martial Empire. I haven't read anything as good as An Ember in the Ashes in some time. I kept being struck by the quiet inventiveness of the language ("In the ensuing silence, you could hear a tear drop.") and the brilliant handling of tension and characterization. Don't most people take several books to get to that kind of skill level?
The story is told from the viewpoints of two young people: Laia, a young woman of the Scholar people who has lost all her family but one to the brutality of the Martial Empire, and Elias, a young Martial man about to graduate from a brutal military academy to become a Mask, sort of a cross between secret police and special forces. Their paths are fated to cross of course, and the results are explosive. The Martial Empire is at a critical junction and the choices they make (and they will have to make many) will have far-reaching consequences.
The Martial Empire itself bears some similarity to Ancient Rome, but elements of many other cultures are drawn in, with the fantasy elements being mostly Arabic in flavour: jinn, efrits, ghuls.
An Ember in the Ashes is a fantasy book for teens, but that designation does make me grumble a bit. I haven't been a teenager in many, many years, and I never felt that this book was too juvenile for me. Yes, the central characters are young, but the themes are universal: conflicting loyalties, choosing between self-gratification and principles, love, betrayal... All the good stuff. And while the difference between good and evil is quite clear in this book, the mix can be complex. While the Scholars are very clearly the oppressed in this story, we find out that their past is not as virtuous as one might think, and their Resistance, while sometimes heroic, can also be venal and corrupt. And the Martial people, while clearly the oppressors, have individuals who aspire to be better and will sacrifice a great deal to do so.
The personal dynamics can also be complex. Sometimes there is no simple choice; someone will get hurt or feel betrayed. Some of the choices remain in the future, as this is clearly the first of a series, and we can't help but wonder how the dilemma will be resolved. The "good guys" blow it sometimes, and even the most evil of the evil show flashes of humanity, although admittedly very few.
The plot is fast-paced and suspenseful, which keeps us turning pages and perhaps from noticing an occasional plausibility issue (unless there is an underlying reason for those implausibilities which will be revealed in future episodes). I am particularly pleased to note that there is no foul language (unless you are so sensitive that "ten hells" sets off your alarms), no steamy sex, although desire is never far away (they're young, how could it be otherwise?) and the story does not suffer in the least because of it.
And for those following the We Read Diverse Books Challenge, this would answer nicely in a couple of categories, depending on your age and the colour of your skin.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy through a giveaway from SF Signal. No review was requested, but I wrote it anyway.
1The land at the heart of Disenchanted.