Title: An Ember in the Ashes (2015)
Series: An Ember in the Ashes – Book 1
Author: Sabaa Tahir
Genre: Young Adult, Dystopian Fiction
Extent: 446 pages
Release Date: April 28, 2015
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.
I’m always really wary of reading hyped books–my expectations tend to soar, which means that when I do get to these books, they usually end up disappointing me. When I first picked up An Ember in the Ashes, I was worried it’ll be just one of those over-buzzed books. Thankfully, I was soon proven wrong.
An Ember in the Ashes is told in two perspectives: Laia’s and Elias’s. Even when they’re physically occupying the same space, their stories are different, providing two sides to a story that make the book, as a whole, multi-dimensional. Admittedly, Laia’s voice took a while to grow on me–at first I didn’t really care for her and thought of her as weak and spoiled, but she soon overcame those and her chapters became much more interesting.
Elias, meanwhile, latched on to me as soon as his voice started. He was torn between duty and honour, between his personal beliefs and family legacy, between good and evil, and it shows. His chapters were full of angst, but I think it was kind of deserved–poor guy was just always stuck between a rock and a hard place.
The side characters were well-written too for the most part. I loved Helene and the length she’d willingly go to for the people she loves; I cared for Izzi and wanted her to be alright; I doubted Keenan but liked that he cared for Laia. At times it was impossible for me to tell who’s good and who’s bad, who’s on Laia’s and Elias’s sides and who’s not. This gave the story many layers and made the book more complex.
“But there are two kinds of guilt, girl: the kind that drowns you until you’re useless, and the kind that fires your soul to purpose.”
Personally, the most interesting of the characters is The Commandant, who was true ice: extremely cold, extremely harsh, and extremely unforgiving. She didn’t hesitate to hurt other people even when it served her no real purpose–except maybe imparting fear–and while it was terrifying, it was a good kind of terrifying. I was often worried for Laia and Elias and there were some moments where I felt they wouldn’t escape unscathed. It’s great because many authors are afraid to really hurt their main characters, but not Tahir.
Now, being unfamiliar with anything ancient Rome, I’m not the best judge of whether or not the setting is authentic–but it is gripping and often gloriously horrifying. Some parts of the story gave me a bit of a Hunger Games deja vu but were afterwards original enough. Tahir’s writing is illustrative, descriptive enough to paint a picture in my mind’s eye, yet not so wordy that she loses my attention in the process.
One thing I noticed with this book is that the characters have a habit of talking to themselves. Hurry, Laia. Go, Laia. Don’t run, Laia. Speak, Laia. Tell them, Laia. Be brave, Laia. Elias’s chapters are similar: This is why you’re leaving, Elias. Relax, Elias. Keep your doubts to yourself, Elias. Reject him, Elias. Stop, Elias. Calm, Elias. Even in context, this happened way too much for me that it disrupted the flow of the writing and made it choppy, especially at some parts.
Apart from that, there is a (dreaded) love square in this book. This didn’t necessarily put a damper on my personal enjoyment, but it’s worth mentioning because many reviewers had said this bothered them. In my case, I didn’t really see Elias and Laia as being in love–more in lust, and this was mentioned as well:
“Your heart wants Keenan, and yet your body is alight when Elias Veturius is near.”
My last gripe with this story (and it’s not a big one, to be fair) is that there are so many questions left unanswered. We don’t know yet why the Empire became this way, why Blackcliff only takes one female student every year to become a soldier, who the Augurs actually are, how the Commandant became the Commandant, etc. Hopefully these things are explored more in the sequel and give us a bit more understanding of the world.
An Ember in the Ashes is fast-paced, action-packed, and equipped with multi-layered characters. It’s a solid start to a new series, and I really can’t wait for the next book. ❤