I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.An Ember In The Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
Published by Razorbill Books on April 28, 2015
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
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AN EMBER IN THE ASHES is a thought-provoking, heart-wrenching and pulse-pounding read. Set in a rich, high-fantasy world with echoes of ancient Rome, it tells the story of a slave fighting for her family and a young soldier fighting for his freedom.
Laia 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.
An Ember In The Ashes is one of those books that I liked for a different set of reasons than I normally like books. I’m generally a character reader but in Ember’s case it was the intense plot and grandiose world-building that sucked me in. The writing is solid and lovely. I wouldn’t call it poetic but it’s somehow, I don’t know, graceful? Sabaa Tahir has a lyrical way of describing things that makes for an interesting juxtaposition against the brutality and horror she’s describing.
I was really impressed with how the world-building is worked in. It’s rich and complicated and there is a ton of it but it’s slipped in around the story so it doesn’t feel like an infodump. The downside of this is it took a bit for me to have any idea what was happening and also made the first hundred-ish pages kind of slow. However, once the plot straightens itself out and kicks in, it pretty much just repeatedly punches you in the face until the end.
The world An Ember In The Ashes takes place in is incredibly fucked up and the plot reflects that. The nation is ruled over by the brutal militaristic Martials headed by the emperor (think ancient Rome). They conquered the land ages ago from the Scholars and have since enslaved them and it’s about as pleasant as it sounds. Laia, the main lady character, gets sucked into a resistance plot that sends her as a slave into Elias’, the male lead, military school run by the evil, ruthless Commandant who also happens to be Elias’ mother.
Simultaneously, trials are being held to determine who the new emperor will be and, because the emperor must be the biggest and baddest mofo in the land, those trials are fucking harsh. People get tortured, rape is a constant threat (not my fav of all tropes but fit with the established world) and friends are forced to kill their friends. Shit is not good, danger is always present and the further I got into the book, the more constant and suffocating it’s presence became. What I’m trying to say is An Ember In The Ashes is intense and very much not a happy read.
I really liked how Elias and Laia’s narratives/characters mirrored each other. Both characters are both struggling with who they are and who they want to be and who their worlds are hellbent on turning them into. They may not be my favorite characters all of the time (they tend to be on the serious end of things and I’m more a quip-in-the-face-of-danger kind of girl) but I thought they were both realistically characterized and brought to life.
I had a hard time connecting to Laia in the beginning but ultimately became deeply fond of her. She goes from ‘oh god what do I do’ to ‘I WILL NOT BE AFRAID’ and it’s beautiful. She’s like I am balancing on the edge of being completely fucked and I could die at any moment and my brother’s life depends on me doing something really hard that I have no idea how to do but guess what, there is no cavalry, there’s only me and and my brother can’t die so I guess I have to figure out how to get this done. That kind of desperate determination always gets to me and I will pray to whatever deity will have me that a sequel is greenlit because her story is only beginning and I really want to see where it will go.
Before I get to Elias, the other POV, let me tell you about my hands down favorite character and the person who, in my opinion, would’ve made for a much more fascinating second POV, Elias’ best friend Helene. Helene is badass, she’s like Liraz from the Daughter of Smoke and Bone come again. She’s the only female cadet in her generation (apparently this is a thing for reasons that I don’t believe were ever fully explained *whispers* sequeeeeeel) and as such is the best of the best. She’s not perfect, while she’s troubled by the empire’s tactics she ultimately believes they are in the right, but she’s complicated, surprising and tragic and I love her.
Elias is a wee bit of an ass. He has a good heart and ultimately means well but he tends to be a little bit of a dudebro and has an annoying tendency to fixate on things like how Helene is so awesome and cool (correct) and not like other girls (*stabs*) and that kind of attitude generally makes me reach for a gas can. I also deeply hated how, upon discovering Helene has feelings for him (I’d say whoops, spoiler, but it’s deeply obvious from his first chapter to everyone except Elias), he totally loses his focus and then blames it on her like how dare you have feelings for me and then avoid me because I basically blew you off when I need your support. It’s self-centered, juvenile and obnoxious and it’d be super nice if we get a sequel because I’d like to see him grow the fuck up.
Speaking of romantical things, I’m not sold on any of the possible ships. I did like how the romance was secondary and realistically complicated. In addition to Elias and Helene, Laia and Elias are a predictably into each other because that’s generally how dual POVs work in YA and Laia also bonds with her revolutionary handler person and it’s not so much a love triangle as much as a sprawling love…shape. Another thing I really like is, assuming there’s a sequel (there basically has to be, there are too many places for this story to go), I can’t definitively predict the ultimate ship(s). Laia and Elias are definitely working the whole starcrossed thing but I wouldn’t be completely surprised if Sabaa turns out to be one of those tricky authors who like to pull the rug out from under you, given the chance, it could go either way (am I being too subtle? I REALLY NEED THERE TO BE A SEQUEL).
Basically, while imperfect, An Ember In The Ashes was an intense, dramatic read. I brought up a lot of things that bothered me but the bottom line is I got completely sucked into this book. My biggest issue is that there isn’t officially a sequel in the works (I was honestly floored when I finished and looked it up only to discover nothing). While all the primary plot lines were tied up, there is so much story left, so many things hinted at, if this isn’t the start of something epic, it’s a criminal waste of potential.