I've discovered a few things while reading An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. I have tagged this as 'dystopian fiction', but I think it is technically not dystopian. I am not even sure what this genre of books is called--it is reminiscent of The Hunger Games--so, alternate history maybe? It is a YA novel that has won a number of awards, and I can see why. What I have discovered about it is--this is not a genre that I am especially drawn to. That said--and the other thing I have discovered--despite it not being my preferred sort of story, it was still immensely enjoyable and if there is a sequel (and this story really screams for a continuation) I will happily read it. So, yes, it is a good thing to sometimes read outside one's comfort zone as you might well discover a really good read.
The setting--future? Past? I'm not really sure. The society in this story is modeled on Ancient Rome with soldiers, Legionnaires, Centurions and slaves making up the different echelons. It's not a happy society, and it is a society where the reader will need to suspend disbelief somewhat to accept the things that happen. There is some magic, but not really of the happy sort. There are Augurs and efrits and people who can heal simply by singing. Much like Ancient Rome, this Empire is controlled with an iron fist and it is hugely regimented. Violence is expected and strength rewarded.
Like all good YA novels, the story is peopled mostly by young people. They are in situations where they must live independently of their families either by choice or situation. For Laia and Elias, it is not by choice. Laia is a slave, or to be more specific, she is of the scholar class, but her parents were in the Resistance and have been murdered. She and her brother have been raised by their grandparents, who are brutally killed at the start of the story. Laia's brother is mixed up with the Resistance in some way. He is caught with a notebook filled with drawings that he should not be making. The Martials have swept their house and either murdered or taken prisoner everyone but Laia manages to run and escape. This is something that burdens her throughout the story and drives her on. She is certain that she should have stayed and fought and perhaps could have saved her brother, or simply died trying.
Elias is a student, a Senior Skull actually, at Blackcliff, which is a community in and of itself. It is the place where soldiers are trained. By the time you are a Senior Skull, you are nearly finished. You are one of the elite soldiers who will become a leader in the Empire. Not everyone makes it. As a matter of fact it is through all sorts of training and hardships that the crowd of students in thinned out, so those remaining are really the cream of the crop. And Elias is one of the best students, one of the strongest and most talented. And also one of the most unhappiest. He also happens to be the son of the Commandant, a leader without an ounce of humanity, a mother who would have left her son to die given the chance. No one escapes the Empire. But Elias, at the beginning of the story is planning to make a break from Blackcliff. He has everything prepared and only must begin his journey through the tunnels beneath the school to make it to a free land.
But Elias and Laia are going to cross paths. A soldier and scholar, who is soon to be slave. This encounter is going to change both of their destinies. Laia is determined to find her brother and help him break out of prison. Elias plans on escaping Blackcliff until the Trials are announced and he is chosen one of the competitors. The winner, chosen from the best students who will compete in a series of nearly impossible trials, will become Emperor. He decides to stay and compete with the hope that he may still find a way out of Blackcliff. Elias wants out, and Laia wants in. She joins the Resistance and infiltrates the Commandant's household as a slave and a spy. The two are about as different from each other and about as far apart in this brutal Empire but will find each needs the other to survive.
This was quite an adventure story, an edge of your seat thrill ride, because of course you have to find out whether either succeeds and what the cost to each will be along the way. Ah, and I see that there is indeed a sequel in the works, A Torch Against the Night, due out next fall. And so the story will continue.