In the Martial Empire, freedom is the price you pay for security. Whether it’s knowing your social cast will always have the same privileges, or the surety of poverty in the Scholar’s quarter, the one thing the Martials always provide is guaranteed destiny. On the surface, this novel could fall into the “just another tale of empire” category, but as the story goes on Tahir builds out both the mythology and history of the Scholar and Martial civilizations to provide depth and conflict to both the Scholar struggle for freedom and the Martial fears of overturned dynasty.
An Ember in the Ashes hinges on the existence of a school of pseudo-peacekeepers, called Blackcliff, from which the mysterious and terrifying Masks graduate. These masks are highly trained military personnel, who also possess somewhat magical abilities that seem to exist primarily to terrify the populace. Laia is orphaned by a Mask raid on her Scholar home, in which her grandparents are killed and her brother taken. She joins a Scholar rebel group and infiltrates Blackcliff on a mission to gain the rebel’s trust and get them to help get her brother out.
Unfortunately, this is where things begin to fall apart, from a meta perspective. While everything Laia does in order to save her brother is realistic, even logical, the ways in which the narrative is constructed leaves somewhat to be desired. Elias, one of the few Masks to both unoppositionally disagree with everything the Masks stand for and to survey all the way to graduation (dissenters and the disloyal are weeded out mercilessly), is all too typical of the “slave to fate” protagonists who hates the world but is too scared to really do anything about it. The fact that he is one of the point of view characters, and so the reader spends a lot of time in his head, doesn’t help, as he often comes off as whiny and privileged.
The other major problem is the way in which women are handled in this novel. In short, they are isolated. There are three major woman characters, with a few supporting women characters. The three major characters–Laia, Helene, and the Commandant–exist as antagonists to each other, and provide motivation for Elias. Laia starts out free but subjugated and becomes a slave for whom he feels sympathy and a symbol of what is wrong with the Empire. Helene is his best friend and for some reason the only woman chosen to attend Blackcliff–the narrative gives a one-sentence explanation that one woman per generation is selected. She’s the perfect student, completely loyal to Elias, and therefore hates any other woman close to him.
Finally, the Commandant, Elias’ mother–again, the only woman of her generation–who is the only identifiable villain of the novel. Other characters exist who commit evil by degrees, but she’s the one made only of cruelty and malice, who enjoys torturing people. She made a name for herself hunting down rebels, and goes through slaves like cheap gloves, but somehow has managed to keep two kitchen slaves around for a few years, one of whom befriends Laia. But this friendship also really only exists to create tension and advance the plot. Otherwise women don’t really interact in this novel. They are all exceptional in their own way and all are wound up in a fate storyline controlled by a group of oracles whose motives are not clear, so not only are they isolated, their agency is somewhat curtailed by the fact that they exist to carry out the plans of an outside force.
So, while Ember in the Ashes had some character issues that need to be resolved in the following books, it was a compelling look at the way empire and colonialism perpetuates itself in numerous ways, effectively enslaving even those who nominally benefit from it. A good companion series might be Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives.