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YA book 'An Ember in the Ashes' draws buzz

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(Read caption) 'An Ember in the Ashes' is by Sabaa Tahir.

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A new young adult novel is getting the attention of critics.

Sabaa Tahir’s book “An Ember in the Ashes,” which was released on April 28, is set in a Rome-like fantasy world and centers on Laia, whose brother is arrested by the government and who agrees to spy for a rebel group at a military academy. There she meets Elias, a soldier who is not happy with the current government. 

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Amazon selected the title as its May spotlight book on its list of the best books to be released this month.

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Other reviews have been positive as well. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, writing that “Tahir’s deft, polished debut alternates between two very different perspectives on the same brutal world, deepening both in the contrast. In a tale brimming with political intrigue and haunted by supernatural forces, the true tension comes from watching Elias and Laia struggle to decide where their loyalties lie.” Meanwhile, School Library Journal called it a “strong debut novel…. Tahir's world-building is wonderfully detailed and the setting is an unusual one for fantasy novels. All of her characters, even minor ones, are fully realized. In particular, the Commandant is a genuinely evil and frightening villain. The author doesn't pull any punches; her descriptions of torture, punishment, and battle are graphic and brutal.”

In addition, NPR critic Amal El-Mohtar called it “an appealing fantasy of crossing destinies and impossible choices,” though El-Mohtar noted that “this is a debut of the sort that Relies on Capital Letters to convey its world-building: the world is little more than a Scaffolding made of Concepts that allows Tahir to explore her main characters and the dynamics between them.” However, El-Mohtar wrote that “she does this to genuinely good effect: the threat levels are high and sharp, the characters are engaging, and the relationships between them occupy the bristling center of the sparsely decorated stage. Laia's journey from frightened runaway to capable spy is compelling, while Elias' struggle to maintain his integrity in a shockingly hostile environment is appropriately tense. The villains, in particular, are frighteningly effective.… [I]f there is a flaw where the character work is concerned, it's in the romantic tension….. [But the book is] fast-paced, well-structured and full of twists and turns.”

Meanwhile, Kirkus Reviews found that the book has an “original, well-constructed fantasy world (barring some lazy naming)… Predictably, action, intrigue, bloodshed and some pounding pulses follow; there's betrayal and a potential love triangle or two as well. Sometimes-lackluster prose and a slight overreliance on certain kinds of sexual violence as a threat only slightly diminish the appeal created by familiar (but not predictable) characters and a truly engaging if not fully fleshed-out fantasy world.”