An Ember in the Ashes

In her impressive debut, Sabaa Tahir constructs a novel set in a medieval city surrounded by desert; her plot pulls readers into her grasp and doesn't let go.

First-person narratives alternate between Laia and Elias, both 17. Laia is a Scholar, a faction defeated violently 500 years ago by the Martials, who rule the country of Serra from Blackcliff, a high, impenetrable fortress. Born enemies, Laia and Elias cross paths after the Masks take Laia's brother, Darin, prisoner because of a sketchbook filled with drawings of the forge where their swords are made. Laia begs members of the Resistance to help her free Darin. They agree, in exchange for her services as a spy, and sell her as a slave to the Commandant herself. Laia, whose parents were betrayed by someone within the Resistance, trusts no one. Elias, who hates his mother and all that the Martials stand for, plans to desert. But both teens get a visit from Cain, an Augur who can read oracles and minds, who tells each of them that they are "an ember in the ashes," full of life, ruled by destiny.

Two romantic triangles develop as time runs out for Laia to rescue her brother and for Elias to decide whether to undertake the four trials that will determine the next Emperor. Tahir makes a chilling case for the corruption that power brings, whether through knowledge or force. While part of her plot resolves, she leaves plenty of room for the next book to answer the question of what it means to win. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

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