An Ember in the Ashes

Hi everyone! Summer is finally upon us, which means a number of things–no homework! More ice cream! Trying not to melt in the all-consuming inferno that is summer heat! And more time for reading/blogging! Which is good, because I have a lot of reviewing to catch up on. And number one is An Ember in the Ashes, by Sabaa Tahir.

The book centers on Laia and Elias, who at first glance couldn’t be more different. Laia is a Scholar living with her grandparents and older brother, somehow managing to survive day-to-day under the brutal rule of the Martial Empire. Elias is the most accomplished student of Blackcliff Academy, where the Empire’s most deadly soldiers are trained. But despite his high status, Elias wants nothing more than to just escape.

When Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, she serves as a spy for the Scholar Resistance, going undercover at Blackcliff in exchange for their help in freeing Darin. It is here that she and Elias meet for the first time. But there’s trouble brewing at Blackcliff, and both Laia and Elias are confronted with much more danger than either of them imagined. This is especially true once the Trials to choose a new Emperor begin.

An Ember in the Ashes is one of those books that left me feeling totally bowled over and like I need to lay down for a while and simply absorb everything about it. (Seriously. On the outside I’m calm, but on the inside there is FLAILING.) So, without further ado, I’m going to try to break down everything in some sort of logical fashion:

The World

An Ember in the Ashes is the first fantasy I’ve read in quite a while. But oh my god, what a fantasy.

The book is set in a fantasy world in which the Scholars have been conquered by the Martial Empire, led by Emperor Taius. The Scholars are brutally oppressed by the Empire, subjected to raids, murder, and slavery. It’s terrifying and violent, and Laia becomes part of fighting that when she agrees to help the Scholar Resistance. Of course, then she’s heading into the belly of the beast.

What struck me about the world of the book was how rich and detailed it was. I loved falling into it, learning more about the people’s lives and how everything worked. The Empire is perhaps the most brutal fantasy regime I’ve ever read about, but Tahir pulls it off in such a brilliant way, and I couldn’t help but be fascinated by Laia and Elias’s world. Everything is painted in such an interesting and detailed light that it just made it harder to put the book down. The courtyard of Blackcliff, the marketplace of Serra, the dunes that surround the school and the desert where the Tribes live. The magic and the setting are all so unique, not to mention non-Eurocentric, and it’s a place I can’t wait to read more about. I felt like these places were almost real, almost close enough to touch, and I loved it.

The Characters

>deep breath< Okay, I am calm, I am calm.

The setting of the book isn’t the only thing that is filled with talent and detail–the characters get a fair share of it themselves. Tahir’s characters are almost living and breathing–they range from the brutal to the cryptic to the oh-my-god-let-me-hug-you variety, but each of them is so well-drawn and unique.

I loved reading about both Laia and Elias. The book is narrated in their alternating POVs, so we get to hear from them both. Laia is so scared at the start of the story, and understandably so–she’s terrified of what she has to do, and she has no idea how she’s ever going to pull this whole spying thing off. But she grows so much throughout the book, and watching that was such a great experience. Elias is also a well-done character, and I really liked that I got to see what it’s like to be a part of Blackcliff through the eyes of someone who’s a part of it, despite how much he wishes he wasn’t. Both of their voices are original and well-written, and I can’t wait to see more of them.

The side characters are also some of the best parts of the book. The Commandant of Blackcliff Academy is terrible–and I mean terrible. She’s brutal and cruel, but also still a character with depth and a story. I was fascinated by Cook, one of the slaves Laia meets at the school, and I also liked Keenan, one of the members of the Resistance that Laia works with. (But don’t mention Mazen to me because I have FEELINGS about Mazen.) (Also Marcus. Never ever mention Marcus. I could stab Markus in the EYE.)

And oh, Helene. I could write for ages about Helene. I could write essays on Helene. Helene is quite possibly the most complex character in the whole book. Unlike Elias, she believes wholeheartedly in the Empire and what it teaches them, but there’s also so much more to her than meets the eye. She’s his best friend, and the only female soldier at the Academy, but she is also full of emotions and skill (I only wish I could wield a sword as capably as Helene). She’s a mix of light and dark and she gives me so many feelings and I need to read more.

The Plot

This plot. This plot blew my mind.

The thing about this book is that the stakes are higher than five Empire State Buildings stacked one on top of the other. Both Laia and Elias, as well as many of the other characters, are surrounded by danger–danger from the Martials, from their own friends, from other things that I don’t want to mention because SPOILERS. It is insane, and it makes it so hard to stop reading. The danger is one of the many things that made this book nearly impossible to put down.

But the mysteries were another thing I loved about the plot. This book is full of twists and turns, and there are secrets around every corner. I was dying to find out what everything meant, who Laia and Elias could trust, if they would ever actually kiss, if they would actually survive. I had to know what would happen next, and I could barely turn the pages fast enough. (There was also an angry yell at one point. I believe it was around page 389.)

I loved the action and the mystery, but I also loved the more subdued scenes and parts of the plot. The section where Laia attends the Scholar-held Moon Festival is definitely one of my favorites, and I loved the looks Tahir gives into the backstories of the characters and their relationships. She finds a wonderful balance between the dangerous, holy-crap-what-is-going-on scenes and the ones that occur in the spaces between those, where we get to see a little more of the characters, and hopefully catch our breath (right before getting it stolen again because THIS PLOT). I can’t remember ever being bored while reading this book. In short, the plot is A+++.

The Writing

(You might think that there is a limit to how many things I can love about this book, but you’d be wrong.)

Tahir’s writing is another one of the great things about An Ember in the Ashes. She writes about the characters and the amazing fantasy world they live in without ever just dumping info on the reader or making it feel stilted. While I did feel a little disoriented in the fantasy setting for the first couple chapters, the confusion was quickly cleared up and after that there was no turning back. She draws the reader in and keeps them turning the pages, and the alternating POVs worked very well (and only made me feel more invested). I adored the plot and characters, but the writing just makes the story even better.

In short, there is talent just radiating from the pages of this book. It’s one of those books that I finished in a fog one afternoon, when I couldn’t put it down and I had had had to keep going. And then afterward I just didn’t know what to do with myself. I needed the book to go on, because as badly as I wanted to know what happened next, I never wanted it to end. It’s the kind of book that you can fall into and stay there for hours. I absolutely loved Ember, and I want to shove it into the hands of pretty much everyone I meet. It’s that good. And if you want to learn more before taking the plunge into Laia and Elias’s world, there’s also this amazing website with a book trailer, character trailers, information about the world, and more.

Until next time, hope you’re all enjoying your summers! Eat some ice cream for me.

–Nora

P.S. An important note: This book does deal quite a lot with violence, and there is also a lot of mention of sexual assault and/or rape, as well as an actual instance of assault. This could be triggering.

P.P.S. Also, this book is downright GORGEOUS. The cover is all glow-y and there are two different maps on the endpapers and just look:

An Ember in the Ashes CollageHave a great day everybody!

I’ll Give You the Sun

Hi everyone! Oh my god it’s November. Er. . .Happy late Halloween? As you can probably see, the book today is I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, which gave me many many feelings and was amazing and agh let’s just get to the review.

I’ll Give You the Sun focuses on twins Noah and Jude, who are so close they think of themselves as NoahandJude, in sync. They’re connected, cell for cell, even when Noah’s bullied by the “surftards” of their Northern California town and Jude’s hailed by them as a daredevil. At least, they were at thirteen. But as the years pass, everything begins to change, and at age sixteen, both the twins are deeply broken and split apart. And then Jude meets a crazy sculptor and his charming model and everything changes (again).

The narration of the story skips around, so while Noah narrates the earlier years, Jude tells the story of the later ones. I have a lot of feelings about this book, so I’m going to attempt to break it down into the various facets:

The Narration

Noah:

13-year-old Noah does not have it easy, which is evident from page one (seriously). He spends most of his time drawing, weaving the colors of what he sees into miraculous, genius pictures, and trying not to get killed by the “reigning neighborhood sociopaths,” Zephyr and Fry. Noah just wants to get into CSA, an art school where he’s certain he’ll find other revolutionaries like himself. And when a startling, fascinating new boy Brian moves in next door, Noah’s got even more to think about (and draw).

One of my favorite things about Noah, not to mention the book in general, is his voice. His voice is a work of art in and of itself. His narration is so visual, which is incredibly appropriate for his character, and the world through his eyes is stunning, full of color and magic. (Well, the nature world. Not the people world.) Plus, his artwork. It’s driving me insane that it doesn’t actually exist, because I want to see some of the things he came up with so very badly. I loved Noah almost immediately, and I almost wish I’d gotten more of his narration before the book ended.

Jude:

While I wasn’t as drawn to Jude’s narration as I was to Noah’s, it still sucked me in and kept me interested. Her voice is super well-written and unique, like Noah’s, and is intermixed with a number of odd superstitions, such as “If a boy gives a girl an orange, her love for him will multiply.” Her character is multi-layered, with numerous facets, from her love of surfing to her clashes with their mother over being that girl. Jude at 13 loves to court danger, but at 16, all she really wants to do is repair the relationships that have been damaged over the years.

The Plot

The thing about this book is that it encompasses a lot. The characters are all connected in ways I never would guessed, and there is so much going on. I just imagine all these plot elements hanging in the air, and Jandy Nelson connecting all of them with pieces of string. It kind of blows my mind to think about it, but she pulls it off beautifully. And the characters were all linked by this invisible web and things happened to them and oh my god FEELINGS.

The Characters

One thing that I find unique about I’ll Give You the Sun is how many of the characters are so very developed. Usually I’ve found that books have the main characters, and then there are the side characters, who, while awesome, aren’t as delved-into. The reader doesn’t get a good look at what goes on inside them. And while I definitely don’t mind that, I found that I’ll Give You the Sun kind of steps outside of that formula–we get to see more of the side characters than I think we’re used to seeing. They’re important in ways one wouldn’t initially expect them to be.

That being said, I loved the characters very much. Each is unique, and each harbors his or her own private grief, in a way that Jandy Nelson makes incredibly real. They’re all flawed, which just makes them even more human. Noah is without a doubt my favorite, but I still loved many of the others, like the sculptor Guillermo Garcia and his assistant/model, Oscar. Noah and Jude’s mother is really something–she bursts off the page like the artwork she loves so fiercely. I also really liked Brian. He and Noah make my little heart do a tap dance of happy.

The Art

Another thing about I’ll Give You the Sun is what a big part of the book art is. Noah and Jude’s mother is an art professor/author, and both of the twins are artistic in their own ways as well. I really enjoyed reading about the different pieces of art that factor into the characters’ lives, and was also very excited when I realized the Magritte Noah rambles about on page 86 is the Magritte responsible for “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” The bits and pieces about art are just another thing that makes the book unique, and you can visit the Gallery page of Jandy Nelson’s website to find more.

All in all, I’ll Give You the Sun is an amazing book. It sucks you in and makes you feel for the characters, and it’s the kind of book that makes you feel like simply describing it will never do it justice. So go read it. It’s pretty awesome.

Hope you’re having a wonderful start to November!

Bookish Quote of the Day: “When people fall in love, they burst into flames.” —I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

P.S. Also, that is an A++ title and cover.

P.P.S. “To the Beat of Our Noisy Hearts” by Matt Nathanson is totally Jude’s theme song.

We Were Liars

Guys. Guys, it’s We Were Liars. I have been waiting for this book for months. MONTHS. AND NOW I HAS READ IT.

And, y’know, promptly had my brain broken.

I have a question: Why do all the good books hurt?

This book. This freaking book. I swear I’m going to try to be coherent about it, but I’m not making any promises.

We Were Liars is narrated by seventeen-year-old Cadence, the oldest grandchild in the rich Sinclair family, a group of square chins, stiff upper lips, and old-money Democrats. Where:

No one is a criminal.

No one is an addict.

No one is a failure.

Cadence spends her summers on Beechwood Island with her extended family. There, she and three other residents form the Liars, a group including Cadence, her cousins Johnny and Mirren, and Johnny’s best friend, Gat. “Most years on the island, we’ve been trouble.”

Their time at Beechwood is described as a “summer idyll,” a time of blueberry pie, swimming, and excursions to nearby Martha’s Vineyard. But something happened during the Liars’ fifteenth summer there. And Cadence can’t remember it.

When Cadence returns to the island when she is seventeen, things are very different. She has migraines that feel like a witch beating her head with an ivory goose. No one will talk to her about what happened. Her grandfather is losing his mind, and one of her beautiful aunts wanders the island at night. The other one cleans obsessively.

The Liars are still there, but they too are hiding things from her.

Like Colette at Refuting the Intolerably Stupid, I’m wary of telling you anything too in-depth about this book. Even the summary on the book itself is vague and secretive. Cadence’s world is one of murky waters, in a family that isn’t nearly as beautiful as it looks.

E. Lockhart has really delivered with this one. The characters are unique and well-written, and Cadence’s voice as a narrator is also very good. Believe me when I say this is unlike any other book I’ve read. Cadence seamlessly slips between prose and poetry, even slipping in short, clever variations on fairytales. I was curious as to how this would play out in the book when I first heard about it, but it really, really works. It’s all very telling and only immerses the reader more in the Sinclairs’ world.

Not to mention the prose. God, I don’t even know if that’s what I should call it. E. Lockhart writes unapologetically and originally, working in images in a way that I’ve never seen before. In a way, even the writing is shocking.

The plot. This is the part where I really feel like I can’t tell you much. There are some novels (like Code Name Verity) where the plot is so well thought-out and insane you’re left sitting there in your armchair/bed/TARDIS wondering what the heck you just read and how the author came up with it. That is what We Were Liars feels like. It’s a maze of questions and hidden answers, until you get to the end and think you may fall over. The plot is amazing. That’s all I’m going to tell you.

I still can’t deal with this book. It’s crazy and original and my god, does it get intense. I almost feel like I should warn you, because it gets serious. It gets insane. I was kind of a wreck when I was getting towards the end, and my parents can vouch for me. It’s the kind of book that can knock you over. I loved it.

Then again, I could be lying.

Bookish Quote of the Day:

“It tasted like salt and failure. The bright red shame of being unloved soaked the grass in front of our house, the bricks of the path, the steps to the porch. My heart spasmed among the peonies like a trout.

Mummy snapped. She said to get hold of myself.

Be normal, now, she said. Right now, she said.

Because you are. Because you can be.” —We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart