Neither all brains nor all brawn is enough to conquer the society depicted in An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. It's the classic story told throughout human history. But Tahir takes a fresh look through the eyes of two teens--one a Scholar, the other a Martial--at the center of the conflict.
The Scholars may be the group that's oppressed now, but they were the oppressors until 500 years ago, when the Martials took control by force. Laia, a Scholar, must live with the fact that her parents chose the Resistance over their children. The only family member she has left is her brother, held prisoner by the Martials. In her quest to enlist the Resistance members' help to free her brother, she learns that someone within the movement betrayed her parents. She also learns how the Scholars played a role in their own demise.
As her life becomes entangled with that of Elias, an elite member of the Martials called a Mask and a favorite to become the next Emperor, Laia must decide for herself who is on the side of justice--so must Elias. Sahir portrays a fictional society with realistic conflicts. Must justice for one group come about at the expense of another? What do you, as an individual, do to stay true to your ideals when others around you are corrupting them for selfish ends? How do you know when you yourself have crossed a line? If you gain power and prestige, is it because of your leadership qualities, or through force and fear? How can you be sure?
History is littered with examples of those who used an ideology or force (often both) to achieve goals they felt were good, but whose means resulted in imprisonment and death for many. Tahir demonstrates that it's harder to recognize an ideal gone wrong when it's unfolding in the present. Laia and Elias observe the corruption going on around them, but can they stop it, or at least stand up to it? And the implicit question to readers is: What would you do?