From the Publisher
Named one of the best books of the year by:
Barnes & Noble
The Wall Street Journal
The New York Public Library
“This novel is a harrowing, haunting reminder of what it means to be human—and how hope might be kindled in the midst of oppression and fear.” —The Washington Post
“[An Ember in the Ashes] thrusts its readers into a world marred by violence and oppression, yet does so with simple prose that can offer moments of loveliness in its clarity. This complexity makes Ember a worthy novel—and one as brave as its characters.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Sabaa Tahir spins a captivating, heart-pounding fantasy.” —Us Weekly
“An Ember in the Ashes mixes The Hunger Games with Game of Thrones...and adds a dash of Romeo and Juliet.” —The Hollywood Reporter
“Blew me away...This book is dark, complex, vivid, and romantic—expect to be completely transported.” —MTV.com
“Fast-paced, well-structured and full of twists and turns, An Ember in the Ashes is an evocative debut that has left me invested in knowing what happens next.” —NPR
“Once you get caught up in the story, it’s addictive, and there’s no way you can put it down before you figure out what happens to the characters you have fallen for over the course of the 400 some-odd pages. So I didn’t.” —Bustle
“One thing I can say for sure: this is a page-turner. There comes a moment when it's impossible to put it down. Sabaa Tahir is a strong writer, but most of all, she's a great storyteller.” —The Huffington Post
“This epic fantasy set in the Martial Empire has it all: danger and violence, secrets and lies, strong characters and forbidden romance and a touch of the supernatural.” —The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“A setting inspired by ancient Rome; a fierce battle for freedom in the face of tyranny; and a villain who makes Cersei Lannister and Dolores Umbridge look like a pair of pathetic amateurs...An Ember in the Ashes is at the top of our must-read list for 2015.” —MTV.com
“Be prepared to be blown away by this fantasy-thriller-adventure.” —Girls’ Life
“An Ember in the Ashes is a book that's too good to put down.” —RedEye
“Perfect for fans of Maggie Stiefvater's The Scorpio Races or Sarah Maas's Throne of Glass series…The book is already set to be a film, which will be EPIC!” —TeenVogue.com
* “Tahir’s deft, polished debut alternates between two very different perspectives on the same brutal world, deepening both in the contrast. In a tale brimming with political intrigue and haunted by supernatural forces, the true tension comes from watching Elias and Laia struggle to decide where their loyalties lie.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Tahir’s world-building is wonderfully detailed and the setting is an unusual one for fantasy novels. All of her characters, even minor ones, are fully realized....For fans of Game of Thrones and of Melina Marchetta’s Finnikin of the Rock.” —School Library Journal
“An original, well-constructed fantasy world...truly engaging.” —Kirkus Reviews
“An epic fantasy debut about an orphan fighting for her family and a soldier fighting for his freedom. It’s a story that’s literally burning to be told.” —Hypable.com
“First-time novelist Tahir has written an ambitious sword-and-sand adventure story that is notable for its suspense and scope.” —Booklist
“Here's one of the year's most anticipated young-adult debuts.” —io9.com
“I was so engrossed with this book that I missed a connecting flight. If that doesn’t convince you to read An Ember in the Ashes, I don’t know what will. An explosive, heartbreaking, epic debut that will keep you glued to the pages. I hope the world’s ready for Sabaa Tahir.” —Marie Lu, New York Times bestselling author of Legend
“With An Ember in the Ashes, Sabaa Tahir shows us light in the darkness, hope in a world of despair, and the human spirit reaching for greatness in difficult times.” —#1 New York Times bestselling author Brandon Sanderson
“An Ember in the Ashes is a spectacular page turner that asks readers to consider how far they’d go to save the ones they love. Sabaa Tahir is the next superstar in young adult fiction and her debut is as cinematic as Gladiator and as high-stakes as Game of Thrones.”—Holly Goldberg Sloan, New York Times bestselling author of Counting by 7s
“A heart-pounding story of love and loss, with the most original world-building I’ve read all year. Deeply felt and deeply moving, I could not put it down.” —Margaret Stohl, New York Times bestselling co-author of Beautiful Creatures
“This electric debut is a pulse-pounding action-packed Romeo and Juliet story in a richly imagined world with a great twist and heroic characters you’ll root for and won’t stop thinking about.” —Melissa de la Cruz, New York Times bestselling author of Frozen and The Ring and the Crown
From the Hardcover edition.
The New York Times Book Review - Marie Rutkoski
Tahir's exploration of the many ways in which we fall prey to one another, and to ourselves, strengthens the fiber of this action-driven book…There's a duality at work in An Ember in the Ashes: The novel thrusts its readers into a world marred by violence and oppression, yet does so with simple prose that can offer moments of loveliness in its clarity. This complexity makes Ember a worthy noveland one as brave as its characters.
As one of the conquered Scholar people, Laia has grown wary of the ruthless Masks that enforce the Martial empire’s laws. But the lesson doesn’t hit home until Masks imprison her brother for aiding the Scholar Resistance. Desperate to save him, Laia agrees to spy for the rebels as a slave in Blackcliff, the hellish school where Masks are trained. Her mission becomes all the more dangerous when the empire’s prophetic Augurs announce that, for the first time in centuries, four newly graduated Masks will compete for the emperor’s throne. One of these “Aspirants,” Elias, had been on the verge of desertion before he was chosen, and he only stays to compete because of the Augurs’ warning that he will never know freedom unless he undergoes the Trials. Tahir’s deft, polished debut alternates between two very different perspectives on the same brutal world, deepening both in the contrast. In a tale brimming with political intrigue and haunted by supernatural forces, the true tension comes from watching Elias and Laia struggle to decide where their loyalties lie. Ages 14–up. Agent: Alexandra Machinist, Janklow & Nesbit. (Apr.)
VOYA, August 2015 (Vol. 38, No. 3) - Katherine Noone
Twice in this much-publicized first of a new dystopian series, augurs call a character an “ember in the ashes,” destined to spark the regeneration of the Empire. Naturally, the two characters are from wildly opposite layers of society, and are also destined to meet in a pair of interlocking love triangles, with a plot resolution that sends them scurrying off in a tunnel towards volume two. Laia is an impoverished orphan desperate to rescue her brother Darin from execution for treason. To gain the help of the Resistance, she agrees to spy, posing as a house slave to an uncommonly brutal woman, Commandant of the Empire’s military academy. The Commandant’s estranged son, Elias, about to graduate first in his academy class, is secretly preparing to desert the military. Elias’s and Laia’s viewpoints alternate throughout. The augurs decree that Elias and three other graduating seniors must compete to be named the next Emperor and his assistant. The two losers will be executed. Readers may wince at the cruelty of the trials, which pose friend against friend, and require the competitors to kill others. The trials seem repetitive at times, and the heroics sometimes impossible. A fair amount of double crossing adds to the tension, but the ending is unexpectedly satisfying. The book has been heralded as a cross between The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, but the similarity of survival contests and school setting does not pinpoint its flavor; it will develop its own fan base. With this promising beginning, the author now faces the challenge of sustaining its power in a sequel. Reviewer: Katherine Noone; Ages 12 to 18.
School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up—This strong debut novel is set in the Martial Empire, a fantasy world based on ancient Rome. Elias Veturius is the scion of a proud Martial military family and an outstanding soldier, but he dreams of escaping Blackcliff Academy, the elite military academy where he has nearly completed his training as a Mask, and his inevitable future as a ruthless killer. Elias and three fellow students will be facing the Trials, dangerous and rigorous challenges that will determine the next emperor. Laia is a Scholar, one of many oppressed groups living under the rule of the Martials. When nearly all of Laia's family is killed and her brother is arrested for having a sketchbook depicting Martial weapons, she goes to the Resistance in desperation. The rebel leaders plant her as a spy at Blackcliff Academy, where she must pose as the personal slave of the Commandant, promising that in return they will rescue her brother. Elias and Laia become romantically involved as they face treachery and political machinations. Tahir's world-building is wonderfully detailed and the setting is an unusual one for fantasy novels. All of her characters, even minor ones, are fully realized. In particular, the Commandant is a genuinely evil and frightening villain. The author doesn't pull any punches; her descriptions of torture, punishment, and battle are graphic and brutal, and her realistic depictions of the treatment of slaves include rape and physical abuse. For fans of Game of Thrones and of Melina Marchetta's Finnikin of the Rock (Candlewick, 2010).—Kathleen E. Gruver, Burlington County Library, Westampton, NJ
A suddenly trendy trope—conflict and romance between members of conquering and enslaved races—enlivened by fantasy elements loosely drawn from Arabic tradition (another trend!). In an original, well-constructed fantasy world (barring some lazy naming), the Scholars have lived under Martial rule for 500 years, downtrodden and in many cases enslaved. Scholar Laia has spent a lifetime hiding her connection to the Resistance—her parents were its leaders—but when her grandparents are killed and her brother's captured by Masks, the eerie, silver-faced elite soldiers of the Martial Empire, Laia must go undercover as a slave to the terrifying Commandant of Blackcliff Military Academy, where Martials are trained for battle. Meanwhile, Elias, the Commandant's not-at-all-beloved son, wants to run away from Blackcliff, until he is named an Aspirant for the throne by the mysterious red-eyed Augurs. Predictably, action, intrigue, bloodshed and some pounding pulses follow; there's betrayal and a potential love triangle or two as well. Sometimes-lackluster prose and a slight overreliance on certain kinds of sexual violence as a threat only slightly diminish the appeal created by familiar (but not predictable) characters and a truly engaging if not fully fleshed-out fantasy world. Bound to be popular. (Fantasy. 13 & up)
Read an Excerpt
My big brother reaches home in the dark hours before dawn, when even ghosts take their rest. He smells of steel and coal and forge. He smells of the enemy.
He folds his scarecrow body through the window, bare feet silent on the rushes. A hot desert wind blows in after him, rustling the limp curtains. His sketchbook falls to the floor, and he nudges it under his bunk with a quick foot, as if it’s a snake.
Where have you been, Darin? In my head, I have the courage to ask the question, and Darin trusts me enough to answer. Why do you keep disappearing? Why, when Pop and Nan need you? When I need you?
Every night for almost two years, I’ve wanted to ask. Every night, I’ve lacked the courage. I have one sibling left. I don’t want him to shut me out like he has everyone else.
But tonight’s different. I know what’s in his sketchbook. I know what it means.
“You shouldn’t be awake.” Darin’s whisper jolts me from my thoughts. He has a cat’s sense for traps—he got it from our mother. I sit up on the bunk as he lights the lamp. No use pretending to be asleep.
“It’s past curfew, and three patrols have gone by. I was worried.”
“I can avoid the soldiers, Laia. Lots of practice.” He rests his chin on my bunk and smiles Mother’s sweet, crooked smile. A familiar look—the one he gives me if I wake from a nightmare or we run out of grain. Everything will be fine, the look says.
He picks up the book on my bed. “Gather in the Night,” he reads the title. “Spooky. What’s it about?”
“I just started it. It’s about a jinn—” I stop. Clever. Very clever. He likes hearing stories as much as I like telling them. “Forget that. Where were you? Pop had a dozen patients this morning.”
And I filled in for you because he can’t do so much alone. Which left Nan to bottle the trader’s jams by herself. Except she didn’t finish. Now the trader won’t pay us, and we’ll starve this winter, and why in the skies don’t you care?
I say these things in my head. The smile’s already dropped off Darin’s face.
“I’m not cut out for healing,” he says. “Pop knows that.”
I want to back down, but I think of Pop’s slumped shoulders this morning. I think of the sketchbook.
“Pop and Nan depend on you. At least talk to them. It’s been months.”
I wait for him to tell me that I don’t understand. That I should leave him be. But he just shakes his head, drops down into his bunk, and closes his eyes like he can’t be bothered to reply.
“I saw your drawings.” The words tumble out in a rush, and Darin’s up in an instant, his face stony. “I wasn’t spying,” I say. “One of the pages was loose. I found it when I changed the rushes this morning.”
“Did you tell Nan and Pop? Did they see?”
“Laia, listen.” Ten hells, I don’t want to hear this. I don’t want to hear his excuses. “What you saw is dangerous,” he says. “You can’t tell anyone about it. Not ever. It’s not just my life at risk. There are others—”
“Are you working for the Empire, Darin? Are you working for the Martials?”
He is silent. I think I see the answer in his eyes, and I feel ill. My brother is a traitor to his own people? My brother is siding with the Empire?
If he hoarded grain, or sold books, or taught children to read, I’d understand. I’d be proud of him for doing the things I’m not brave enough to do. The Empire raids, jails, and kills for such “crimes,” but teaching a six-year-old her letters isn’t evil—not in the minds of my people, the Scholar people.
But what Darin has done is sick. It’s a betrayal.
“The Empire killed our parents,” I whisper. “Our sister.”
I want to shout at him, but I choke on the words. The Martials conquered Scholar lands five hundred years ago, and since then, they’ve done nothing but oppress and enslave us. Once, 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.
“How could you side with the Martials? How, Darin?”
“It’s not what you think, Laia. I’ll explain everything, but—”
He pauses suddenly, his hand jerking up to silence me when I ask for the promised explanation. He cocks his head toward the window.
Through the thin walls, I hear Pop’s snores, Nan shifting in her sleep, a mourning dove’s croon. Familiar sounds. Home sounds.
Darin hears something else. The blood drains from his face, and dread flashes in his eyes. “Laia,” he says. “Raid.”
“But if you work for the Empire—” Then why are the soldiers raiding us?
“I’m not working for them.” He sounds calm. Calmer than I feel. “Hide the sketchbook. That’s what they want. That’s what they’re here for.”
Then he’s out the door, and I’m alone. My bare legs move like cold molasses, my hands like wooden blocks. Hurry, Laia!
Usually, the Empire raids in the heat of the day. The soldiers want Scholar mothers and children to watch. They want fathers and brothers to see another man’s family enslaved. As bad as those raids are, the night raids are worse. The night raids are for when the Empire doesn’t want witnesses.
I wonder if this is real. If it’s a nightmare. It’s real, Laia. Move.
I drop the sketchbook out the window into a hedge. It’s a poor hiding place, but I have no time. Nan hobbles into my room. Her hands, so steady when she stirs vats of jam or braids my hair, flutter like frantic birds, desperate for me to move faster.
She pulls me into the hallway. Darin stands with Pop at the back door. My grandfather’s white hair is scattered as a haystack and his clothes are wrinkled, but there’s no sleep in the deep grooves of his face. He murmurs something to my brother, then hands him Nan’s largest kitchen knife. I don’t know why he bothers. Against the Serric steel of a Martial blade, the knife will only shatter.
“You and Darin leave through the backyard,” Nan says, her eyes darting from window to window. “They haven’t surrounded the house yet.”
No. No. No. “Nan,” I breathe her name, stumbling when she pushes me toward Pop.
“Hide in the east end of the Quarter—” Her sentence ends in a choke, her eyes on the front window. Through the ragged curtains, I catch a flash of a liquid silver face. My stomach clenches.
“A Mask,” Nan says. “They’ve brought a Mask. Go, Laia. Before he gets inside.”
“What about you? What about Pop?”
“We’ll hold them off.” Pop shoves me gently out the door. “Keep your secrets close, love. Listen to Darin. He’ll take care of you. Go.”
Darin’s lean shadow falls over me, and he grabs my hand as the door closes behind us. He slouches to blend into the warm night, moving silently across the loose sand of the backyard with a confidence I wish I felt. Although I am seventeen and old enough to control my fear, I grip his hand like it’s the only solid thing in this world.
I’m not working for them, Darin said. Then whom is he working for? Somehow, he got close enough to the forges of Serra to draw, in detail, the creation process of the Empire’s most precious asset: the unbreakable, curved scims that can cut through three men at once.
Half a millennium ago, the Scholars crumbled beneath the Martial invasion because our blades broke against their superior steel. Since then, we have learned nothing of steelcraft. The Martials hoard their secrets the way a miser hoards gold. Anyone caught near our city’s forges without good reason—Scholar or Martial—risks execution.
If Darin isn’t with the Empire, how did he get near Serra’s forges? How did the Martials find out about his sketchbook?
On the other side of the house, a fist pounds on the front door. Boots shuffle, steel clinks. I look around wildly, expecting to see the silver armor and red capes of Empire legionnaires, but the backyard is still. The fresh night air does nothing to stop the sweat rolling down my neck. Distantly, I hear the thud of drums from Blackcliff, the Mask training school. The sound sharpens my fear into a hard point stabbing at my center. The Empire doesn’t send those silver-faced monsters on just any raid.
The pounding on the door sounds again.
“In the name of the Empire,” an irritated voice says, “I demand you open this door.”
As one, Darin and I freeze.
“Doesn’t sound like a Mask,” Darin whispers. Masks speak softly with words that cut through you like a scim. In the time it would take a legionnaire to knock and issue an order, a Mask would already be in the house, weapons slicing through anyone in his way.
Darin meets my eyes, and I know we’re both thinking the same thing. If the Mask isn’t with the rest of the soldiers at the front door, then where is he?
“Don’t be afraid, Laia,” Darin says. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”
I want to believe him, but my fear is a tide tugging at my ankles, pulling me under. I think of the couple that lived next door: raided, imprisoned, and sold into slavery three weeks ago. Book smugglers, the Martials said. Five days after that, one of Pop’s oldest patients, a ninety-three-year-old man who could barely walk, was executed in his own home, his throat slit from ear to ear. Resistance collaborator.
What will the soldiers do to Nan and Pop? Jail them? Enslave them?
We reach the back gate. Darin stands on his toes to unhook the latch when a scrape in the alley beyond stops him short. A breeze sighs past, sending a cloud of dust into the air.
Darin pushes me behind him. His knuckles are white around the knife handle as the gate swings open with a moan. A finger of terror draws a trail up my spine. I peer over my brother’s shoulder into the alley.
There is nothing out there but the quiet shifting of sand. Nothing but the occasional gust of wind and the shuttered windows of our sleeping neighbors.
I sigh in relief and step around Darin.
That’s when the Mask emerges from the darkness and walks through the gate.
The deserter will be dead before dawn.
His tracks zigzag like a struck deer’s in the dust of Serra’s catacombs. The tunnels have done him in. The hot air is too heavy down here, the smells of death and rot too close.
The tracks are more than an hour old by the time I see them. The guards have his scent now, poor bastard. If he’s lucky, he’ll die in the chase. If not . . .
Don’t think about it. Hide the backpack. Get out of here.
Skulls crunch as I shove a pack loaded with food and water into a wall crypt. Helene would give me hell if she could see how I’m treating the dead. But then, if Helene finds out why I’m down here in the first place, desecration will be the least of her complaints.
She won’t find out. Not until it’s too late. Guilt pricks at me, but I shove it away. Helene’s the strongest person I know. She’ll be fine without me.
For what feels like the hundredth time, I look over my shoulder. The tunnel is quiet. The deserter led the soldiers in the opposite direction. But safety’s an illusion I know never to trust. I work quickly, piling bones back in front of the crypt to cover my trail, my senses primed for anything out of the ordinary.
One more day of this. One more day of paranoia and hiding and lying. One day until graduation. Then I’ll be free.
As I rearrange the crypt’s skulls, the hot air shifts like a bear waking from hibernation. The smells of grass and snow cut through the fetid breath of the tunnel. Two seconds is all I have to step away from the crypt and kneel, examining the ground as if there might be tracks here. Then she is at my back.
“Elias? What are you doing down here?”
“Didn’t you hear? There’s a deserter loose.” I keep my attention fixed on the dusty floor. Beneath the silver mask that covers me from forehead to jaw, my face should be unreadable. But Helene Aquilla and I have been together nearly every day of the fourteen years we’ve been training at Blackcliff Military Academy; she can probably hear me thinking.
She comes around me silently, and I look up into her eyes, as blue and pale as the warm waters of the southern islands. My mask sits atop my face, separate and foreign, hiding my features as well as my emotions. But Hel’s mask clings to her like a silvery second skin, and I can see the slight furrow in her brow as she looks down at me. Relax, Elias, I tell myself. You’re just looking for a deserter.
“He didn’t come this way,” Hel says. She runs a hand over her hair, braided, as always, into a tight, silver-blonde crown. “Dex took an auxiliary company off the north watchtower and into the East Branch tunnel. You think they’ll catch him?”
Aux soldiers, though not as highly trained as legionnaires and nothing compared to Masks, are still merciless hunters. “Of course they’ll catch him.” I fail to keep the bitterness out of my voice, and Helene gives me a hard look. “The cowardly scum,” I add. “Anyway, why are you awake? You weren’t on watch this morning.” I made sure of it.
“Those bleeding drums.” Helene looks around the tunnel. “Woke everyone up.”
The drums. Of course. Deserter, they’d thundered in the middle of the graveyard watch. All active units to the walls. Helene must have decided to join the hunt. Dex, my lieutenant, would have told her which direction I’d gone. He’d have thought nothing of it.
“I thought the deserter might have come this way.” I turn from my hidden pack to look down another tunnel. “Guess I was wrong. I should catch up to Dex.”
“Much as I hate to admit it, you’re not usually wrong.” Helene cocks her head and smiles at me. I feel that guilt again, wrenching as a fist to the gut. She’ll be furious when she learns what I’ve done. She’ll never forgive me. Doesn’t matter. You’ve decided. Can’t turn back now.
Hel traces the dust on the ground with a fair, practiced hand. “I’ve never even seen this tunnel before.”
A drop of sweat crawls down my neck. I ignore it.
“It’s hot, and it reeks,” I say. “Like everything else down here.” Come on, I want to add. But doing so would be like tattooing “I am up to no good” on my forehead. I keep quiet and lean against the catacomb wall, arms crossed.
The field of battle is my temple. I mentally chant a saying my grandfather taught me the day he met me, when I was six. He insists it sharpens the mind the way a whetstone sharpens a blade. The swordpoint is my priest. The dance of death is my prayer. The killing blow is my release.
Helene peers at my blurred tracks, following them, somehow, to the crypt where I stowed my pack, to the skulls piled there. She’s suspicious, and the air between us is suddenly tense.
I need to distract her. As she looks between me and the crypt, I run my gaze lazily down her body. She stands two inches shy of six feet—a half-foot shorter than me. She’s the only female student at Blackcliff; in the black, close-fitting fatigues all students wear, her strong, slender form has always drawn admiring glances. Just not mine. We’ve been friends too long for that.
Come on, notice. Notice me leering and get mad about it.
When I meet her eyes, brazen as a sailor fresh into port, she opens her mouth, as if to rip into me. Then she looks back at the crypt.
If she sees the pack and guesses what I’m up to, I’m done for. She might hate doing it, but Empire law would demand she report me, and Helene’s never broken a law in her life.
I prepare my lie. Just wanted to get away for a couple of days, Hel. Needed some time to think. Didn’t want to worry you.
Without thought, I translate the disparate beats into the message they are meant to convey. Deserter caught. All students report to central courtyard immediately.
My stomach sinks. Some naïve part of me hoped the deserter would at least make it out of the city. “That didn’t take long,” I say. “We should go.”
I make for the main tunnel. Helene follows, as I knew she would. She would stab herself in the eye before she disobeyed a direct order. Helene is a true Martial, more loyal to the Empire than to her own mother. Like any good Mask-in-training, she takes Blackcliff’s motto to heart: Duty first, unto death.
I wonder what she would say if she knew what I’d really been doing in the tunnels.
I wonder how she’d feel about my hatred for the Empire.
I wonder what she would do if she found out her best friend is planning to desert.