I stayed up way, way past what could be deemed a reasonable bedtime to tear through Sabaa Tahir's An Ember in the Ashes . 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.
Laia is a Scholar, a member of the oppressed class crushed by the Martials in a siege ages earlier. At the beginning of the novel, Laia's beloved brother is captured by the ruling class of the Martial Empire and imprisoned for treason, which will likely lead to his death. On the other hand, there's Elias, who is training to become a Mask, the stealthy, emotionless soldiers all Scholars fear — the same Masks that captured Laia's brother. But Elias questions his role in the Empire as he bears witness to brutal beatings, killings, and imprisonment all in the name of keeping those in power, in power and the impoverished stuck under their boots.
In a deal to save her brother, Laia takes on what seems like a suicide mission into the headquarters of the Masks, sold as a slave to their Commandant, where she must spy for the growing rebellion against the Martials. It's here where the two stories intertwine, as the soldier and the slave each feel trapped in their own roles in life.
Full disclosure: The story, at times, is brutally violent and the depictions of both warfare and the threat of rape over the female servants from the Masks can make your stomach lurch. But Tahir has said that if she doesn't depict war as war, in all its brutality, readers would have called her out for being inauthentic. In this society, after all, these men and women are trained as emotionless killers, where barbaric acts are just part of keeping their world in balance.
But as the title would suggest An Ember in the Ashes never fully relents to utter darkness and violence. There is always a glimmer, no matter if it's merely an ember, of hope that propels the characters to lash out against the status quo in an effort to change things for the future. Whether in personal ways, such as rescuing a beloved brother, or in ways that you might not see at first, but will change the entire course of society.
And in a world where there are jinnis, mind-readers, ghuls, and other magical creatures, Tahir's emotion and depictions of the human spirit are spot on reality. At the heart, the relationship between Elias and his long-time best friend and fellow Mask Helene may play out in a fantastical place under heightened circumstances, but at it's heart, it's a story about how life and growing into your adult self can rattle even the closest friends. And an emerging bond between Laia and Elias shows two struggling people finding solace in an unexpected place as they suffer unrest in their own minds. While, arguably the Commandant and to an extent Marcus, are at times cartoonishly evil, at the base, each of Tahir's characters are utterly human, from Cook to Kitchen Girl in the Commandant's home, to members of the rebellion, to the Mask trainees, and of course, Laia and Elias.
If you're like me and you're absolutely desperate for a sequel to Tahir's An Ember in the Ashes, these seven YA novels should tide you over until the combining effect of readers everywhere crossing their fingers brings a sequel to fruition.
The Dragon King Chronicles Trilogy by Ellen Oh
You are probably already intimately familiar with Ellen Oh's name as the founder of the incredible We Need Diverse Books campaign. Her Dragon Kings Chronicles series will wrap you up for three books, the latest being this year's King, released in March. The star of the story is the greatest warrior of all the seven kingdoms. That warrior is a young woman, born with yellow eyes, and the only woman in the king's army. She's chosen as the prince's bodyguard, and this role sets her up as a subject of hate (jealous!), making her an outcast despite of her clear superior skills. When a demon invasion threatens her home, she takes the prince on the run to safety. Like in An Ember in the Ashes, this fantasy story is action-packed, with battles, magical creatures, and enough intrigue to keep you frantically turning pages.
Exquisite Captive by Heather Demetrios
Heather Demetrios' Exquisite Captive centers on one of the magical creatures that appears in An Ember in the Ashes, the jinni. Nalia is a powerful jinni who has been trapped in a bottle and sold to a slave trader, where she becomes part of the slave trade between her home in Arjinna and Earth, forced to grant wishes for whomever buys her services. Her master is Malek, who lives in the high life in Hollywood and treats Nalia cruelly. To escape and help save her brother from a similar fate back in Arjinna, Nalia — in a situation very similar to Tahir's Laia — makes a deal with her sworn enemy Raif, the leader of Arjinna’s revolution. In this deal, she must pretend to fall in love with Malek and retrieve the bottle she was captured in. It's an adventure into traditional and modern jinni tales, with a bonus of action and love.
Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch
Snow Like Ashes is a fantasy epic, much akin to An Ember in the Ashes, where the new land is as wondrous as the characters that populate it. Raasch built a world of eight kingdoms, four of which are named for the seasons and exist in a place entirely experiencing that season, and four of which are Rhythms that experience all four seasons. Off "screen" in the book, before the story begins, we learn that Spring has attacked Winter and enslaved all of its people several years prior. But eight Winterians managed to escape and the fate of their kingdom rests entirely in their hands. Meira is an orphan, as her parents were killed in the Spring invasion, and to save her kingdom she sets out on a treacherous journey to recover the long missing Royal Conduit, a magical locket that the female ruler uses to guide her kingdom. But, similar to An Ember in the Ashes, things aren't always what they seem, and there's a blurry line between good and evil.
Legend by Marie Lu
Before The Young Elites, Marie Lu enthralled readers with her Legend series, which has become (oh, excuse me) legendary for its thrilling, action-adventure love story. Tahir fans cannot go wrong here. Trading in a fantasy land for a science-fiction dystopia, Legend follows two people born into vastly different social classes: There's June who, similar to Tahir's Elias is being trained for elite military forces, and there's Day, a wanted criminal born into the slums. When June's brother is murdered, not surprisingly all eyes turn to Day as the suspect. But don't worry, readers, things are never as simple as they seem. The story is full of secrets, betrayals, a bit of romance, and enough action to have you reading straight through the night in a race to the conclusion.
Huntress by Malinda Lo
Huntress is Malinda Lo's prequel to her incredible Cinderella retelling Ash, and it will hit all the right notes for fans of An Ember in the Ashes. The human world is falling into chaos; creatures are appearing and the sun hasn't shone in years, meaning there have been no crops to feed the hungry. In an effort to seek help for these issues of survival, 17-year-old girls Kaede and Taisin are selected by oracles to journey to the city of the Fairy Queen to seek aid. There's magical visions, betrayal, action, and a healthy dose of romance that will appeal to Tahir fans.
Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard
Unwilling espionage ties Tahir's Laia with Aveyard's character Mare, who also infiltrates the elite class' home under the guise of a servant. Both Laia and Mare discover during their assignments that they are stronger than they believed themselves to be, as Mare unlocks magical powers she never realized she had. In Red Queen, like in Tahir's novel, the world is divided between the magic-bearing elite class, the Silver Bloods, and the oppressed, the Red Bloods. Red Blood Mare is on assignment from the Red rebellion to gather information about the Silver royal family, but when her magic is showcased in public, the king betroths her to the prince, hiding a Red with Silver powers in plain sight. Both books twist and turn so you can't tell who to trust, and neither author presents a black-and-white world of good and evil.
Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes
More than once, Morgan Rhodes' fantasy series has been compared to Game of Thrones, and that links it well with Tahir's novel, which has the same power struggles and brutality, always with the lingering sense of hope. There are three kingdoms of Mytica, in Falling Kingdoms, that have held on to a shaky peace agreement for centuries, partly because of the disappearance of magic. Through the eyes of Cleo, a princess who must leave behind her luxe lifestyle to journey to seek out magic; Lucia, an orphan adopted into the royal family who is growing into her sorceress powers; Jonas, the leader of the people's revolution against oppression by the ruling class; and Magnus, heir to an evil king who has been trained since birth in combat, Rhodes tells the story of the shattering of this peace between the kingdoms. Like in An Ember in the Ashes, magical creatures tie into the power struggle to complicate matters even further.