An Ember in the Ashes: Review

An Ember in the Ashes: ReviewAn Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
Published by Penguin, Razorbill on April 28, 2015
Genres: fantasy
Pages: 464 pages
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Amazon • Indiebound • Barnes & Noble • Goodreads


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.

I couldn’t put Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes down. This is a statement of fact: I picked it up late at night when I couldn’t sleep, started reading, and had to force myself to go to bed approximately 300 pages later. (Wendy can vouch for me here as the lucky recipient of some early morning “OH MY GOD THIS IS SO GOOD” texts. Hopefully she didn’t mind too much because she liked it, too!) I can’t remember the last time this happened and it was excellent. It reminded me of how I felt about reading as a teenager, which is to say that I was engrossed in Sabaa Tahir’s imaginary world.

And that is basically what I want to reiterate, now that An Ember in the Ashes is out and ready and waiting to keep you up at night. Oh my God, you guys. This book is so good. It’s not a perfect book (more on that later) but it is a totally captivating read. (And yes, fair warning, it is dark and violent and terrifying, but that never felt gratuitous to me, though your mileage may vary).

The story follows the narratives of Laia and Elias, who are members of two different social classes (Scholars and Martials, respectively) in a fantasy world inspired by imperial Rome. Laia’s living in an oppressive, militarized society, and just wants to stay safe – until her brother is taken by the Martials. She joins up with a revolutionary faction that promises to rescue her brother if she takes an incredibly risky job. They ask her to work as a slave and super-secret spy in the Commandant of Blackcliff’s household. The Commandant, who also happens to be Elias’s mother, is a sadist who regularly dehumanizes, tortures, and executes slaves at Blackcliff. So … the job seems very much like a death-sentence for Laia from the get-go, but it’s her only hope to rescue her brother. Can she trust the Resistance? Can she hide her true purposes at Blackcliff? Can she ferret out enough information to save her brother?

On the other hand, Elias is just about to finish his training as a Mask (selective and highly skilled warriors) at Blackcliff. He has no desire to actually become a Mask, though, and plans to desert immediately following his graduation. Unfortunately for him, though, he’s named an Aspirant in the upcoming Trials that are used to test the mettle of a new emperor. He vows to see the Trials through, but still has an eye out for ways he can escape the Empire and finally gain his freedom.

What I liked about this book: first-off, the narrative style of the book really worked for me. The book alternates between Laia and Elias’s voices, which kept me engaged pretty actively in the story. (They are both in peril all the time, so I had to keep reading!) I suspect it’s actually quite difficult to sustain this level of constant apprehension without exhausting your reader, so hats off to Sabaa Tahir – I really liked this aspect of An Ember in the Ashes.

Secondly, I loved Laia; she’s definitely one of my favorite female heroines to emerge from YA literature in the past year or so. Her emotional development from the novel’s beginning to end is a beautiful thing to behold: while she is initially tortured by her seeming cowardice in relationship to the rest of her family, by the end of the novel, she’s risking life and limb for what she believes in. What is more important, however, is that she gains a stronger sense of self and a stronger commitment to her own goals and ideals. I tend to like heroines who struggle with their relationship to their families, and Laia does this by struggling with her relationship to her family’s legacy. They’re fighters and revolutionaries, and Laia – at first – just wants to keep her family safe and whole.

Elias’s struggle is similar. Both Laia and Elias are bound together by their conflicted relationship to their families – for Laia, this means thinking about what it means for her to be the daughter of revolutionaries; for Elias, it means thinking about his family’s military and political legacy, his mother’s brutality, and (in particular) what it means for him to be an ethical leader. I’ve also been thinking about this a bit since Rosamund Hodge’s post for the Crimson Bound blog tour on Strong Female Characters, but I was struck by how both Laia and Elias sort through their relationship to their respective families by redefining what it means for them to be strong. (Laia, for example, at the close of the novel, thinks that she is “the Lioness’s Daughter, and has the Lioness’s strength,” while learning when to act, while Elias, on the other hand, figures out when he is not willing to act.)

Last thing I loved, which I suspect is the result of reading Harry Potter during my formative years: man, I will happily read anything that takes me through a series of trials. I love it. I don’t know why. But I love reading about tests, and always want … more tests. (This is probably why I’m still in graduate school.)

While I really enjoyed this book (and highly recommend it! everyone should read it!), it wasn’t totally perfect for me. I wanted the ending to be slowed down; the action is fast-paced all the way through, but the book reaches a breakneck pace by the end, and I felt occasionally overwhelmed and confused. In addition – and this is usually true for me – I could have done with less romance. The confusion that both Elias and Laia have with regards to their potential romantic interests felt very true to me (they’re both attracted to more than one person which is, you know, totally normal) but I still wanted less of a love quadrangle? pentagon? I didn’t feel like there was space in the text to actually develop all of these relationships fully – especially with everything else that’s going on. View Spoiler » Helene and Elias had the most compelling relationship to me in some ways, because their relationship gets the most space and attention in the novel, and I suspect they’re not end-game. « Hide Spoiler

In any case: Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes is a wonderfully engaging, immersive read. Give it a try if you’re interested in fantasy, classical Rome, revolution, and teenagers who are figuring out who they want to be in the world. I loved it. I hope you do, too.

Have you read this one yet? If so, what’d you think?

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