a torch against the night, i figured i'd talk a bit about the novel that started it all. i actually picked up an ember in the ashes after i started seeing it on all these young adult must-read lists. at the time it wasn't yet set to have a sequel, and when i first finished it i kept googling until i found the answer i wanted. since then it's evolved into a four-part series, which on the one hand slays me, because oh my god that means there is so much story before i find out how it all ends. but on the other hand thrills me because i loved this scary, terrifying world that tahir created and i want to spend more time with all the characters, especially elias and laia. i loved them so, so much.
the story is set in an ancient land, somewhat of a cross of the holy roman empire and the ancient middle east. the martials reign supreme, particularly with their army of masks. the lowly scholars serving as their slaves, deprived of even their names while serving within the confines of the imperial fortress. outside the fortress a resistance has formed and laia's brother is captured in a raid one night, the rest of her family slaughtered by the masks. laia escapes and finds her way to the resistance only to be sent to the fortress as a spy from within the ruthless commandant's house.
but this is not just laia's story, elias shows us life in serra from the martial perspective. and it isn't much better as a martial. forced to join an army despite his feelings he resists the process of melding with his silver mask. this resistance marks elias as different, a dangerous prospect when all the leaders want is uniformity and compliance. elias meets laia by chance and is drawn to her. but he also feels deeply for his classmate helene. he's been secretly planning his desertion but then the trials come into play and to protect the people he cares about he must participate.
i don't want to give anything else away, because the suspense of what happens next makes this book worth reading. the relationships between laia and keenan, laia and elias, elias and helene, laia and darin, elias and the commandant, are all layered and complex. i loved getting to know these characters and watching them inhabit this world. the book does end with a cliffhanger, but honestly it was the kind of ending where even if there had never been another book, i would have been okay. because i would have been able to imagine the ending i liked. but it's probably for the best that i don't have to do that. i trust tahir's talent to take the story in directions i couldn't even imagine.