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Our hearts beat – control them! October 14, 2016

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
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A Torch Against the Night, the follow up to Sabaa Tahir’s YA epic fantasy An Ember in the Ashes, certainly puts its readers through the emotional wringer. Tahir’s world is one whose ordinary inhabitants suffer under the constant oppression of an occupying force: the military and rulers (the two are in many ways one and the same) of the Martial Empire. In creating her Martial oppressors, Tahir drew heavily on Rome, while her Scholar and Tribespeople underclass have cultures, mythologies and folklore modelled on the Middle East. It’s an excellent combination. The power of the Martial Empire is not absolute, and the cracks — a burgeoning resistance movement, dissent in the military ranks, a priestly class apparently following its own agenda, and conflicts breaking out among its ruling families — were already apparent in An Ember in the Ashes. Into this volatile mix stepped two characters: Laia, a terrified, traumatised Scholar girl who took on a dangerous spying role in exchange for the resistance movement saving her imprisoned brother, and Elias, the abused, unwanted son of the Commandant of the Martial Empire’s Blackcliff military training academy. Both were self-sacrificing beyond reason, and both were, in their own ways, being treated as weapons to be wielded by the people who controlled them: the Blackcliff hierarchy in Elias’ case, the resistance in Laia’s. Over the course of the book, the pair struggled to break free from the tense, terrifying control others had over them, and realised that their combined strength and differing perspectives gave them something they lacked when alone: hope, and a chance to change the world. Both had conflicting loyalties — Elias to the other Blackcliff trainees next to whom he’d grown up, above all the patrician, loyal, perfect soldier Helene Aquilla (the sole female Blackcliff warrior in his cohort), Laia to her network of resistance fighters and the ragged band of servants she drew into her orbit while spying in Blackcliff.

The tragedy of both characters — and one which Tahir throws into sharp perspective in A Torch Against the Night — is that they are naturally emotionally expressive, compassionate people, with an intense love for others, but are led to believe that they must stamp out these extremities of emotion — above all, their growing love for one another — for the good of the political cause. Both push their personal feelings aside because they believe their energies must be invested in the task at hand: freeing Laia’s brother from prison, saving the fugitive Scholars from genocide, and overthrowing the might of the Martial Empire. What they fail to understand is that they were drawn to such tasks because of their deep love and sense of responsibility for other people; their emotions give them power, and their love for each other is a source of strength, not a hindrance. Over the course of the novel, their empathy and selflessness is contrasted repeatedly with the actions of cruel, selfish and self-centred people, while the growing group of people from many different backgrounds who help and support them reflects their ability to lead by inspiration and hope, rather than by force and fear.

Where An Ember in the Ashes was claustrophobic — its action confined, for the most part, to the narrow corridors and networks of rooms and tunnels of the Blackcliff Academy and the complicated political machinations going on within — A Torch Against the Night is sweeping in scale, as Laia, Elias and their shifting network of friends, allies and antagonists become caught up in the broader political and military tensions of the region. For this reason, Tahir’s decision to expand her number of point-of-view characters to three, giving us Helene’s perspective as well as Elias and Laia’s, is welcome. While Elias and Laia’s journey takes place among wandering Tribespeople and fugitive scholars fleeing Martial persecution, Helene gives us eyes on the imperial court — on the upper echelons of Martial might, and on new emperor Marcus’s disastrous and dictatorial decisions. Helene’s story is equally tragic: she was brought up to be a loyal soldier of the Empire, assured that her loyalty (even in the face of acts of barbarism) would save the entire world’s existence, and that she must put aside all personal desire and be a dutiful servant to the Empire, no matter how cruel and damaging or downright irrational the actions of its emperor.

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Artwork of Laia by Jay Bendt.

If all this sounds a little bit grim, rest assured that there is hoping shining out amid all the darkness. Although Tahir’s characters include a lot of soldiers and warriors, it is in the character of Laia that the novel makes its strongest statement: there are many different kinds of strength, and the most powerful of all is the ability to endure, to be frightened, to be forced to make bargains and compromises, and to come out with the capacity to love, to feel empathy and kindness intact. Where Laia lacks physical strength she makes up for it in endurance, the ability to forge clever alliances and offer hope for other people, and a kind of moral courage that illuminates and inspires. She’s one of my favourite YA heroines, and I look forward to seeing where her adventures take her, Elias, Helene and the other characters in the final two books of Tahir’s series.

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Divided cities April 28, 2016

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
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The three YA novels I review here are all set in cities which are, in one way or another, divided, featuring state-sanctioned inequality so extreme that revolution needs only a tiny spark to set it off. Characters in all three books reach out across the divide, fighting in their own ways for justice, equality, or just the chance to carve out a tiny space of safety for themselves.

Sarah Rees Brennan is nothing if not ambitious. Her latest work, Tell the Wind and Fire reimagines Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities as an urban fantasy romance involving doppelgängers, a complicated magical system, and, of course, revolution. Instead of the ‘two cities’ of Dickens’ story, Tell the Wind and Fire is set in a New York divided into ‘Light’ and ‘Dark’ cities, which exist in parallel, mirror images of glittering privilege and violently enforced dispossession. Rees Brennan’s Lucie Manette is a teenage magic wielder who grew up in the Dark cities, but was brought to the Light, where she is treated as something of a symbol and a trophy, the girlfriend of the cherished son of the Light city’s ruling family. This ruling dynasty’s ruthless maintenance of its own power is matched only by its complicated, hypocritical secrets. Rees Brennan is great at showing the cruelty and injustice that keeps her imagined New York divided, and doesn’t shy away from placing the blame entirely at the feet of its glittering Light elite, who care little that their enormous wealth is built on suffering. As revolution smoulders, Lucie attempts to navigate the treacherous political waters, torn between individual loyalty to those she loves – in both Light and Dark New York – and her moral outrage at the injustice of her society. Lucie is well aware of her power as a symbol – a borrowed power that is dependent on her never, ever speaking for herself – and has a realistic sense of this power’s limits. Lucie’s sharp sense of self-preservation, honed through years living in the downtrodden Dark city and among the capricious powerbrokers of the Light, is one of the strongest elements of this book, and she is a character with whom I very much enjoyed spending time.

Rather less satisfying for me were the wider character dynamics of Tell the Wind and Fire. In previous works, characterisation has been Sarah Rees Brennan’s strong point, and I’ve come to look forward to her books for their fantastic found families – collections of odd, misfit characters thrown together by circumstance, who’ll protect each other fiercely against the cruelties and dangers of the world. Perhaps because it was a standalone book rather than a trilogy, with less time to develop secondary characters, I found this element somewhat lacking in Tell the Wind and Fire, and missed it. Other than that, however, the book was an enjoyable read, although the twists of the plot will be unsurprising to those already familiar with A Tale of Two Cities.

Sabaa Tahir’s debut novel An Ember in the Ashes is a claustrophobic fantasy romance set in a city under occupation. The Martial Empire enforces its rule with military might and legalised discrimination; the Scholars, formerly the elite, are forbidden to learn to read, and are either enslaved or forced to live in precarious poverty. The novel is told from alternate viewpoints – that of Laia, a young Scholar girl who accepts a dangerous spying mission at the heart of the Martial administration as a slave to its ruthless military leader, and Elias, a Martial boy training to be the empire’s most lethal warrior (more weapon than human being), but secretly attempting to escape his abusive training. Tahir does an excellent job of making all parts of her stratified city – from the brutal Blackcliff Academy where Elias trains and Laia spies, to the twisting alleyways where Scholars make their homes and the resistance plots the Martial Empire’s demise – come alive, always emphasising the rampant inequality and the violence with which it is maintained. While I slightly preferred Laia as a viewpoint character, both protagonists are carefully drawn, and their respective fears, hopes and motivations are well balanced. I particularly like it when characters in this kind of set up have an internal struggle between genuine and well-justified terror at the life-threatening situations in which they find themselves, and their desire to transform their society into a more just and equal place. I like it when it forces them to make compromises, bargains, and small, short-term sacrifices of principle, and I very much appreciated that this was the case with Laia. An Ember in the Ashes ends on quite the cliffhanger, so I’m relieved to see that the sequel will be published in August.

Court of Fives, the first in a YA series by Kate Elliott, is much subtler than the previous two books reviewed here in its exploration of power, privilege, and their corrosive effect on societies and individuals. Its setting is inspired by Ptolemaic Egypt, with divisions between the ruling Patrons and ruled Commoners more fluid than the letter of the law would suggest. Patrons cannot marry Commoners – but they can form relationships, as is the case in the family of protagonist Jessamy, whose father is a Patron and mother is a Commoner. Similarly, certain routes to advancement are barred to Commoners – but they can gain prestige and acclaim as talented players of Fives, the popular sport beloved by Patrons and Commoners alike, and played by both. But – as is the case with all unequal societies – there are hidden complications and unwritten rules that slowly become part of the social structure, understood by all, but difficult to live with. Jessamy and her sisters occupy an uneasy space between Patron and Commoner worlds, both exoticised and scorned. They are all painfully aware that their fate – and fate of their family – is dependent on their making good marriages with Patron men. Their mother is a hindrance to their father’s career, and, after a series misfortunes, it becomes clear that their parents’ apparent love match is a more fragile thing, vulnerable to the demands of politics and social mobility. Playing Fives – formerly an escape for Jessamy – becomes a deadly necessity, as the fate of her entire family depends on her success on the court.

There are echoes in Court of Fives of Little Women, but Elliott’s refusal to let the father character off the hook is a breath of fresh air to me, as someone who always found Alcott’s depiction of Mr March too close to hagiography. Here, there is an acknowledgement that the actions of men in patriarchal societies can have appalling consequences for the women around them, that such men are very often ignorant of, and unmoved by, the effects their actions have on the women in their lives, and, most importantly, that even in patriarchal societies, women and girls have lives and relationships and stories independent of the husbands and fathers whose actions circumscribe their existence. Throw in a brilliantly depicted set of sisters – each with her own personality and dreams – and you have everything I could possibly want in a Kate Elliott book.