By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Sabaa Tahir
Narration by: Fiona Hardingham, Steve West
“An Ember in the Ashes” resurrects the myth of perfect beauty. Like Helen of Troy, Sabaa Tahir creates Laia whose beauty seduces the high and mighty, the immoral and licentious, and the low and rebellious. Laia is a beauty with perfect proportion and symmetry; without guile, self-awareness, or conceit. A fan of life knows perfect beauty is a myth but, as a premise for a story, it is irresistible. The myth launches a thousand ships in the “Trojan War”, destroys a life in “Anne Karenina”, and calms a savage beast in “King Kong”. A fan succumbs to stories of perfect beauty’s mythical allure.
The course of a world’s history in Tahir’s “An Ember in the Ashes” is changed by perfect beauty. Tahir creates a fantasy world where might is right and rebellion is imminent. Like in Plato’s “Republic”, society is stratified with a ruling-elite, a warrior class, and everyone else. The warrior class is built from children born of warriors; taken from their families, and trained through adulthood to protect the Republic. Unlike Plato’s “Republic”, the ruling class is not meant to create philosopher kings but to mold rulers for a totalitarian state. The ruling class is focused on training and selecting the next Emperor for “absolute power”, without any necessary qualification for the “common good”. The “everyone else” is made of merchants, slaves, and the hoi polloi.
The perfect beauty, Laia, has a brother; i.e. one of the hoi polloi; who is arrested by the ruling class. In the course of arrest, Laia’s grandparents are murdered which leaves her with no living relatives other than her arrested brother. Laia seeks help of an underground rebel group, originally started by her deceased parents, to fight totalitarian government. A mystery surrounds the underground group and the lives and deaths of her parents. Laia finds the new leaders of the underground and is recruited to infiltrate the state hierarchy as a slave of the powerful and malicious matron of the warrior school.
Tahir creates a turning point in her fantasy world’s history. The next Emperor is to be selected from the warrior class in a competition. There are four selected aspirants for the position; i.e. one woman, and three men. The woman aspirant is in love with one of the men, Elias, who considers her a best friend but not a matrimonial mate. The other two male aspirants are twin brothers; one of which is a cruel, amoral tyrant, and the other a pliant follower of his sibling.
Elias is the son of the powerful and malicious matron who runs the Warrior school and owns Laia. Elias despises his mother for having abandoned him in the desert when he is born–another mystery. The hate Elias has for his mother grows more virulent with years of training at the Warrior school. Elias first sees Laia in his mother’s presence and is emotionally overwhelmed by Laia’s perfect beauty.
To enhance Tahir’s fantasy world, there are mythical creatures; e.g. Ghuls, Jinni, and immortal watchers that manipulate this world’s culture. The watchers are called Augurs, with the principal Augur named Cain. Cain is a lynch pin between totalitarian government and individual freedom.
“An Ember in the Ashes” is an adventure and entertainment in the Marvel’ mode. The book’s last chapters twist and turn to offer a tale told in different languages, cultures, and eras. It is a comic book version of trials in human governance. It is masked in the myth of perfect beauty. The audio book version is well done and finely produced but the story is hackneyed; and ironically, a probable best seller.