Sabaa Tahir’s popular An Ember in the Ashes series gets its first graphic novel prequel, A Thief Among Trees. Elias Veturius, one of the narrators of the Ember series, is a fiver, the second-lowest rank of students at the Martial Empire’s Blackcliff Academy. In Blackcliff tradition, fivers are sent into the wild for four years without any resources or help, and if they survive those four years they become cadets. The few fivers who survive to become cadets each receive a silver mask, a major step in the process of becoming Masks, the Martial Empire’s ruthless warriors.
Elias and his friend Helene Aquilla—also a popular character from the Ember series—sent on a mission to steal vials of potent poison from the island where it’s distilled, along with their friend Octavius, or Tavi. Going against Blackcliff’s sadistic dog-eat-dog approach to training, Elias and his friends convince a group of rival fivers to team up to steal the poison. They succeed, and half of the group escapes the island with their vials intact.
Unfortunately, Marcus and Zak Farrar, Elias and Helene’s rivals in the Trials to become Emperor in An Ember in the Ashes, make off with one of their vials. Returning from the mission without the correct number of vials would be a death sentence, so Elias, Helene, and Tavi must stay behind and steal the diluted poison to distill.
Meanwhile, the poison is being tested on children from the Scholar Empire, a group that has been subjugated by the Martials for the past 500 years, and the friends have to decide whether it is willing to give up everything they’ve worked for to save the Scholar children.
Though this first volume in a planned trilogy could be read on its own, background knowledge of the Ember series provides context for its elaborately crafted setting. Without knowing the inner workings of Blackcliff’s training regimen, readers may be confused about why young children have been sent on such a dangerous mission. The juxtaposition of the fivers’ naivete against the cruelty of Titus Sisellius, the Mask leader on the island, is significantly more disturbing when the reader knows that fivers are training to eventually become Masks. Still, readers with no familiarity with the Ember series have one advantage; since Tavi is not in it, fans of the Ember series will suspect he is marked for death from the start.
The full-color illustrations are beautiful. The island setting means the predominant colors are earth tones and forest and jungle greens. Each of the main characters looks appropriately young; fivers are between ages 11 and 15, according to Blackcliff rules. Characters are drawn distinctively enough to easily differentiate between them, with one exception: Elias and Tavi look almost identical. As readers progress through the book, they will notice distinguishing features, such as Elias’s aquiline nose or Tavi’s straight bangs. Still, readers may find themselves doing double takes to determine which character is speaking at any given point.
At first glance, one might peg A Thief Among the Trees as targeted for tweens. The main characters are tweens, and they are drawn to look like tweens. While it features violence, it does not include depictions of rape and physical torture, like its parent series. Nevertheless, the bleak and disturbing nature of the Ember world may prove scary to younger readers. Recommend to teen fans of Ember and—with a content warning or two—mature tweens.
By Sabaa Tahir and Nicole Andelfinger
Art by Sonia Liao
Series Reading Order
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)