An Ember in the Ashes is a 2015 epic fantasy novel[2] written by former Washington Post editor Sabaa Tahir[3][4] and published by Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Random House. The story is set in an ancient fantasy world where a girl fights to save her brother from imprisonment, and a soldier battles to free himself from a tyrannical regime. The book is a New York Times, USA Today and international bestseller.[5][6][7] International translation rights have been sold in 30 countries as of October 2015.[8]

Cultural groups and characters

Cultural Groups

The Scholars – The Scholars are a group of oppressed individuals who once ruled the land that has since been occupied by the Martial Empire. Many Scholars are enslaved by the Martials, and those who are not enslaved live a difficult, poverty-stricken life. The Resistance is a secretive group made up of Scholars seeking to overthrow the Empire.[9]

The Martials – The Martials make up the brutal ruling class of the Martial Empire. They have, for 500 years, oppressed and enslaved the Scholars. The Martials are a military-focused group of people, with a large army and a group of elite soldiers within that army who are referred to as the "Masks."

The Tribes – The Tribes are a group of nomads inspired by the Bedouin Tribes of North Africa.[2]


Laia – Laia is described on the official An Ember in the Ashes web site as "a Scholar living with her grandparents and brother under the brutal rule of the Martial Empire. She and her family eke out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets, trying their best not to draw attention to themselves. But one night, Empire soldiers raid Laia’s home—and life as she knows it changes forever."[2]

Elias – This character is described as "the finest soldier at Blackcliff Military Academy—but secretly, its most unwilling. The scion of one of the Empire’s finest families, Elias wants only to be free from the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce."[2]

Helene – Helene Aquilla is Blackcliff Academy's only female student and also best friend to Elias.[2]

Commandant – The Commandant is cruel head of the military academy Blackcliff, and is considered "one of the most powerful people in the Empire."[2]


While working at The Washington Post, Tahir read a story about Kashmiri women whose male family members are thrown into prison by the military and never seen again. She asked herself what she would do if she were one of those women. This was the kernel from which An Ember in the Ashes grew.[12]

To characterize Elias (and other warriors in the story) authentically, Tahir interviewed a West Point cadet, police officers, soldiers and an FBI agent. These people helped her understand the mindset of a warrior. She used what she learned to inform Elias's actions, dialogue, skills, thoughts, etc. She wrote by iteration, and her characters revealed themselves over time.[12] In the book, Laia is forced to become a slave. Tahir read about slavery in ancient Rome as well as in the U.S to make the experiences in the story more authentic.

The book's Martial Empire system is based on the social stratification of Ancient Rome.[2]

Tahir got the idea for An Ember in the Ashes in 2007 and wrote the book over a period of six years. She cites music as a key inspiration.[12]


An Ember in the Ashes became an instant New York Times bestseller, debuting on the young adult list at the number two spot and continuing to garner accolades since.[15] The Huffington Post said "An Ember in the Ashes glows, burns, and smolders—as beautiful and radiant as it is searing."[2] Amazon named it one of the best books of May, as well as the best young adult book of 2015[2] and the fourth best book of the year. CNN included the book in the list of best summer beach reads.[3]

The New York Times called it "a worthy novel—and one as brave as its characters".[3] Mary Quattlebaum of The Washington Post, said, "This novel is a harrowing, haunting reminder of what it means to be human—and how hope might be kindled in the midst of oppression and fear." Amal El-Mohtar of NPR said that "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."[3]

Marie Lu, author of New York Times bestselling Legend trilogy, said, "I was so engrossed with this book that I missed a connecting flight. If that doesn't convince you to read An Ember in the Ashes, I don't know what will. An explosive, heartbreaking, epic debut that will keep you glued to the pages. I hope the world's ready for Sabaa Tahir."[3]

Film rights were optioned by Paramount Pictures in a seven-figure deal in 2014, well before the book's publication, and Mark Johnson (Breaking Bad, Chronicles of Narnia) has signed on to produce the film.[3] The enthusiastic response from readers, combined with the book's out-of-the-gate success, led to the acquisition of a sequel almost immediately after its release.[15] The sequel, entitled A Torch Against the Night, is slated for a 2016 release.[3]