Man, this was a tough choice. The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma and An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir are both really strong titles. They are just so different.
The Walls Around Us is “Orange Is the New Black” meets “Black Swan”. Violet is a promising young ballerina on her way to Julliard. Three years ago, her best friend Ori was convicted for murdering two ballerinas in their company. But who exactly actually committed the crime? Our other narrator is Amber who is serving time in a women’s juvenile detention center in Upstate New York for murdering her stepfather. Throughout the story, the reader is confronted with questioning the guilt, innocence, and reliability of all three girls. Suma’s writing is creepy and strange. She twists reality in ways that push this book beyond realistic fiction, but not quite into paranormal fiction either. The Walls Around Us deals with female relationship dynamics, bullying, revenge, violence against women, and the tremendous pressures of young adulthood.
An Ember in the Ashes is a really well-fleshed out fantasy saga. Elias is a top military trainee in a martial society (this book was inspired by ancient Rome). He has all the privilege and power a citizen of the Empire could want, yet, he doesn’t actually want it. He detests violence despite being a skilled fighter and strategist. His struggles with morality within the confines of this oppressive world are wholly original and genuine. Laia is on the opposite end of the spectrum. She is a Scholar, the conquered people ruled over by the Martials. A Mask, the type of soldier Elias is training to become, takes Laia’s family from her. Thus, she chooses to become a slave to the violent Commandant of the military academy in order to spy for the Resistance who promises to help break her brother out of the Empire’s prisons. Yet, of Elias and Laia, who has more freedom? Who is making better choices? This struggle for agency and humanity is what makes this book stand out among similar fantasy/dystopia novels.
While Tahir’s fast-paced story is more engaging, it feels almost unfair to compare a well-fleshed-out fantasy saga to something that is pushing the boundaries of realistic and paranormal fiction. Tahir has more to work with just because of the genre; fight scenes, mind-reading immortal creatures, explosions, sexy revolutionaries, spies, torture, sexual tension, etc. I think Nova Ren Suma is more skilled as a writer. Tahir’s similes and metaphors are often clichéd and repetitive. Suma uses her writing to confuse the reader; the plot relies on her strong imagery and characterization through internal monologues. Tahir’s writing, however, is simply a vehicle to deliver a great story. She relies on dialogue and action to deliver the punches far more than Suma needs to.
While I respect Nova Ren Suma for doing something really unique, I have to pick An Ember in the Ashes as the winner. Sabaa Tahir’s characters grapple with interesting challenges both internal and external in a well-built world. She has great command of the plot. She maintains the tension to keep you reading (to the point where you might skip ahead to the next chapter when she switches narrators). As my meter for readability is “Which book made me late for work the most?” I have to go with An Ember in the Ashes.
WINNER: AN EMBER IN THE ASHES BY SABAA TAHIR
Reviewed by Kim Naples, Prospect Heights Public Library District