An Ember in the Ashes (An Ember in the Ashes #1)
By: Sabaa Tahir
Publication Date: February 9th, 2016
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.
‘Vaguely Dystopic fantasy ancient Rome’ are words that are like catnip to me when browsing through bookstores. I suppose it was bound to be sooner, rather than later, when I found An Ember in the Ashes, especially with the hype it’s been generating in the YA world.
The first few chapters of Ember in the Ashes will drag you in, even if you’ve just picked it up for a casual read. There was so much pain and chaos that I couldn’t help but keep reading. And although I felt that the rest of the book never hit that same frenzied pitch, the pace and tension evened out in a very satisfactory way. I had genuine difficulty putting Ember in the Ashes down for even a moment.
I had mixed reviews about the dual POV. I liked that it really gave two sides of the story, and Laia and Elias had different enough voices that it never became confusing. But despite that, Elias definitely felt like he was carrying the brunt of the plot. The fact that he was involved in a competition to become the next Emperor, and trying to figure out how to get out of the martial world of the Empire at the same time, gave his POV a definite sense of urgency that was lacking with Laia. Laia, by contrast, was shy and timid, not participating in events as much as watching from the sidelines. I liked her voice, and thought that she was a solid counterpart to Elias. But her story felt like a side plot for most of the book–until the end, really.
As much as I wasn’t a fan of the dual POV, I did actually really like the love story between Elias and Laia. It could have been this ‘forbidden love’ thing, but instead it was so much more. It was about respect, and honesty, and kindness, in a world that was harsh and duplicitous and out to get them. It wasn’t even really about love, or attraction in a lot of ways, but there was a potential there that I appreciated. At the end, even if there wasn’t a relationship, I felt that they had a stronger basis for one than almost any other YA couple out there.
One of the reasons they didn’t end up in an actual relationship, though, was because there was some serious love geometry going on otherwise. Laia has a halfhearted thing going on with one of the rebels, Keenan–despite the fact that the rebels are clearly untrustworthy. And the relationship between Elias and Helene, his best friend and competitor, is complex enough to take up most of the emotional weight of the book. One of the characters I actually felt the most sympathy for was Helene. Even without the whole ‘unrequited love’ thing, she felt like she was one of the most truly self-sacrificing characters in the book.
The Commandant was another incredibly complex side character–and that out of a whole bunch of complex side characters. Until the end, I didn’t understand her relationship with Elias, and even when she said she wished him dead, I felt sympathy for her. It’s not that she’s evil, exactly, even with the whole torturing-servants thing. It feels instead that she’s sacrificed most of her humanity in order to maintain power in this harsh, militaristic, male-oriented empire. Similarly, a lot of her bitterness seems to stem from maybe her own daddy issues, that she’s then transferring to her own child.
What surprises me looking back, especially since so many of the characters were skilfully and complicatedly written, is that the worldbuilding is rather sparse. Most of the action takes place in the Blackcliff Academy, with a minor amount taking place in the city. A lot of my impressions of the outside world are based on the character’s impressions of the outside world, which are varied but really just sketches. Especially since there was a lot of leaning on the ‘Ancient Rome’ similarity, I was surprised that we weren’t given much awareness of the outside world–but hopefully that’ll change in the sequel.
Basically, this is a really good, engaging book with highly realistic characters. I can’t imagine a better foundation for the second book, A Torch Against the Night, and am very much looking forward to getting my hands on it!
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Disclaimer: The synopsis and cover picture were pulled from the book’s Goodreads page. Neither belong to us.