An Ember in the Ashes (Series) by Sabaa Tahir

This review will cover the first three books in the Ember series (An Ember in the Ashes, A Torch Against the Night and A Reaper at the Gates). The fourth and final book in the series is due in 2019.

This is the story of Laia, a young woman in a slave class that finds her world destroyed, and ends up in a band of resistors who are looking to finally free themselves of the Martials, who are the ruling class of the empire. There is also Elias, who is student at a military school, which trains the best and the brightest to become Masks, an elite fighting force that serves the empire. Eventually, Laia and Elias’s stories intertwine, and we begin our grand adventure to destroy the empire. But of course, the threat is much deeper and our “heroes” discover a threat that is bigger than anything they could have imagined. The fate of the world is at stake!

The story is full of the familiar tropes that we all know; the bastard of a powerful family who wants out; the unrequited love of a best friend; the conspiracy that is bigger than first thought, etc. It makes some plot developments predictable, but, there are enough plot twists that are not conventional, that really elevates the story from being typical fantasy cliches to an interesting story that doesn’t always go the way you’d think.

My one quibble with the novel is my utter lack of interest in the main protagonist, Laia. Especially in the first book, I constantly found myself getting annoyed with her. She was so indecisive, so naive and didn’t really seem to think things through. Granted, it can be just as frustrating when the main character seems to do everything perfectly, even when its something they have never done before, but this almost made me not want to finish the book. What saved me was the story of Elias. I found his character to be much more compelling. Sure, there are some major tropes going on with him as well, but I just found his journey to be the more intriguing of the two. His inner turmoil about being turned into this amoral fighting machine, fighting for an empire he really didn’t care for, while not groundbreaking, was just plain old interesting. The cast of characters surrounding Elias at the school helped as well, although I wish there was a bit more character development there. They weren’t quite distinctive enough for me to really tell them apart, but I think there would have been more time for that sort of development if the book was focused on Elias, and not Laia.

Another reason for me to continue with the series was the twisting and turning of the plot, which I found made up for my lack of interest in Laia. I won’t reveal those twists of course, but we also get some new point of view characters starting in the second book that really beings to round out the overall story.

I did find that once I finished the second book, I really thought that the third book would be the conclusion. Then I read that this was a quartet and not a trilogy. I really think the story could have been condensed to three books, since there were some plot shenanigans that were going on to stretch out.

I know I seem fairly critical, but I did come to enjoy the characters and the story, especially when the new point of view characters were introduced in book two. I am looking forward to the fourth installment, and discovering the ultimate fate of the characters.

Lilypad Rating:LilyPadLilyPad1/2 out of 5

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Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation is an alternate history set in the aftermath of the American Civil War. A civil war which ended in part because of zombies. Sounds like fun!

Well, not quite. Just because the dead aren’t staying dead, that doesn’t mean some form of subjugation and oppression of blacks and Native Americans would go away. It just takes a different form. In this timeline, slavery is abolished, but there are still shamblers to fight. So, former slaves and native peoples are forced into combat schools where they are trained to fight shamblers in order to protect the white population. Our main character, Jane, is a young black girl who has been trained at Miss Preston’s School of Combat to be a shambler fighter. It is supposed to be her greatest hope to be chosen by a white lady from high society to be her “Attendant”.  These “Attendants” are basically body guards for their lady, and are meant to protect them from shamblers. Of course, things go horribly wrong for our heroine, and our adventure begins.

I enjoyed the point of view of Jane, who is not only one of, if not the best fighter at the school, but she is rough around the edges to say the least. She is brash and somewhat unapologetic. Its refreshing to have her as the protagonist rather than being the sidekick.   She is reminiscent of the “charming roguish thief”, that you see in many fantasy series. I liked the characters themselves, but I’m not sure how I feel about the actual plot. I liked it when they were at the school, and when they were able to get out of the school and into the surrounding areas (Baltimore, to be exact), but once the location changes, then I began to lose a bit of the connection I had to the story. I still enjoyed it, but the story was expanding a little too quickly for my taste. I had just gotten into that particular corner of the world, and then I was taken out of it. This is the first book in a series, so if there were going to be other books, I felt more time could’ve been spent in their original location. (I’m being vague because I am avoiding spoilers).

I was also concerned about the timeline. I kept thinking it was closer to the end of the civil war than it was (the story takes place in 1880, the U.S. Civil War ended in 1865). I would read a story about what happened at the Battle of Gettysburg when the dead on both sides began to rise.  Maybe that can be a prequel!

The writing had a sharpness that was appealing, with an economy of words that I think worked well overall. Just enough description, but not too much.

Overall, I enjoyed the story and I encourage others to pick it up. The author also has a list of resources in her “Author’s Note” about the history of industrial schools, and how the United States government sent Native children there to be “civilized”. These schools were the basis for her “combat schools” in the novel.

Lilypad Rating:LilyPadLilyPadLilyPad1/2 out of 5