Sometimes my interest level in something is inversely related to that something’s popularity. Since I’m a dork, let me explain in diagram form:

inverse relationship

A Musical Example

Here’s an example: Portugal. The Man. You might not have heard of this band per se, but you’ve probably heard their catchy song “Feel It Still”, like EVERYWHERE. (I just heard it in Whole Foods last week and cringed.) This whole inverse relationship I have between popularity and interest may be why I’m annoyed that everyone now loves Portugal. The Man. (A band I guarantee almost no one had heard of 6 months ago). However, they’ve been one of my favorite bands for years. And while I want them to have success, there is still a little (OK, large) part of me that prefers the unpopular, the counter-culture, the fringe and isn’t thrilled that songs from my little secret band are now on the tips of everyone’s singing lips.

Of course, the diagram explains the relationship but not the why. Why am I this way? To truly understand I think I’d need a lot more therapy and this isn’t a blog about my neuroses, at least not outwardly. This blog is mostly about my writing life and books. So what does this have to do with books and, specifically, An Ember in the Ashes?

The Inverse Relationship in Books

This inverse relationship isn’t music specific. It’s this desire to be different, to reject the mainstream that drives me to read things that are more obscure or at least read the books that will be popular way before anyone else. (I proudly boast that I read A Brief History of Seven Killings and dropped it on my list of favorite books before there was even a whiff it would win any major book awards.)

But, when I went to the National Book Festival Weekend in Washington, DC, in September, you can’t go too far without tripping over an author of a popular book series. It’s kind of why they’re there. So, as I looked over the schedule and read about the speakers, I felt drawn to Sabaa Tahir. I knew she wrote the popular YA book series starting with An Ember in the Ashes. And after reading a brief blurb about her, I was interested to learn more. With husband and daughter in tow, we went to see her speak.

Ms. Tahir stood at the end of a long room, bright lights posting her shadow on a purple backdrop and began her presentation. On her third or fourth slide she put up a picture of herself as a child with a bowl haircut and everyone chuckled. (Bowl haircut: a haircut that looks like someone put a large bowl on your head and cut off the hair below the rim, for those who don’t know the term. If it didn’t even look good on adorable 80s child stars, the worst hairstyle decade, why do people keep doing it?)

bowl haircut.jpg
Cute 80s kid show star, not Sabaa Tahir

Ms. Tahir proceeded to make fun of herself and her unusual childhood, which instantly won me over. By the time her talk dovetailed into a clever discussion of failure and how it makes us better people, I felt myself wishing we could be best friends. Needless to say, I rushed out the next day and bought her book. (Only because I couldn’t find anywhere to buy it at the Festival. Helpful tip National Book Festival: Have an obvious place where people can actually buy books!)

Given my to be read (TBR) piles might reach the moon if combined together, it’s pretty telling that I decided to read this book instead of many other worthy tomes. It speaks to the power of personality and connecting with readers, which Ms. Tahir did a great job of at the book festival. Plus, it’s a book that grabs you right in the first chapter and won’t let go, like a crazed killer with a rusty hook dragging you through the forest. (Sorry, Halloween is coming up. I think my analogies are a bit tainted. The reading experience was much more pleasant than I’m making it sound.)

But my analogy is not that distorted. The book contains murder and beatings and attempted rape. These are not easy topics for not-so-young adults, let alone young adults, which is the book’s genre. In fact, I started reading it to my 12-year-old daughter, who also enjoyed Ms. Tahir’s talk. We got through about two chapters together and decided she was not the right audience. It’s not a book that “lets the reader off the hook”, to go back to my analogy. There’s struggle and pain, not just metaphorically. And there are few pauses where you can catch your reader breath. You need to be ready to get on an intense, sometimes bloody, roller coaster that lasts 300 plus pages.

But, before I continue…

A Quick Synopsis of An Ember in the Ashes (thanks, Amazon)

Ember 2Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

A Quick Review of An Ember in the Ashes (thanks me)

Much has already been said about this book by others. It’s won awards and had accolades heaped on it. Its diverse characters are cherished and beloved.

When I read a book, if I don’t think I can provide some sort of new insight on it, or at least a different vantage point, I don’t typically review it. In this case, this is less a book review and more self-review using a book. (It is all about how books make you feel, right?)

Sometimes books are popular for a reason. In this case, I think this one deserves its popularity. YA books have to keep a precarious balance that people may not realize. YA writers have restrictions in how far they can go in terms of language, actions, and themes and pushing those boundaries or even crossing certain lines can be dangerous for an author’s acceptance in the genre. But good YA pushes boundaries without crossing lines. Like a good cartoon (I’m looking at you, Phineas and Ferb), it reaches young adults and the rest of us not-so-young adults. The best review I can give of this book is that it does all of this and it made me think. That’s really the essence of a good book for me. It made me think about society’s social constructs and how it takes a certain type of bravery to fight against a social caste system.

An Ember in the Ashes is a popular book that put a sword right through my inverse relationship diagram. I’ve actually already started the next book in the series. (Sorry TBR pile!!!)