Book title: An Ember in the Ashes
Author: Sabaa Tahir
Series: An Ember in the Ashes, #1
Publisher: Razorbill (Penguin Group USA)
Release date: April 2015
Format: Hardcover, 446 pages
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.
Wow, this was a tough one to review! I had mixed feelings while reading An Ember in the Ashes, and I have incredibly mixed feelings upon finishing An Ember in the Ashes. On one hand, I kind of liked it. On the other hand, I had a ton of problems with it. It’s a very dark world, and the book is well written, but I never felt completely gripped by the story. It had strange pacing, neither slow nor fast, and I really had to sit down and make myself read it.
Let me also talk about the confusion of: Is this book a standalone or part of a series? It seems like the book was marketed as a standalone. People who then read it said they hoped there would be a sequel. I started reading the book thinking it was a standalone — and standalones can have very different endings and such. However, while I was reading An Ember in the Ashes, the publisher announced that there now will be a sequel. So then my perspective shifted because of this new knowledge. The book actually does end without everything resolved, and makes it abundantly clear that there’s definite room for a sequel. I was a little irked at this misleading marketing. The book ends on a sort-of cliffhanger; the story is far from over. Publishers, don’t say a book is a standalone if it’s not actually a complete story and you’re going to turn it into a series only a few weeks after the book is published. Gah!
Moving on… An Ember in the Ashes follows two characters: Elias and Laia. Elias is training to become a Mask, and he’s one of the top students at the Empire’s (military) training academy. However, he’s thinking about deserting, as he’s unhappy with the brutal way the Empire controls everyone and everything. Laia is a reluctant member of the rebellion, and when her brother is captured by the Empire for treason, she goes undercover to spy on the Empire’s training school in exchange for the rescue of her brother. Obviously, Elias and Laia’s paths intersect, but the book is very focused on their separate journeys.
Laia, as a character, was okay. She seemed very childish at points. I also got tired of her constant “I miss my brother” shtick. Yes, I felt bad and I really did want her to help get Darin (said brother) out of prison, but we only met Darin in the book’s opening chapter and so briefly that he was someone I had zero feelings for. I don’t like it when stories revolve around a specific person that the audience has no attachment to. And making it a loved one doesn’t automatically make us care. We need to see and learn why this person is worth all the trouble. And in this book, I honestly didn’t care if Darin was dead or alive. Does that make me a bad person?
Elias I found a lot more interesting than Laia, but even he seemed bland sometimes. Still, he was conflicted about the Empire’s brutal ways, and he no longer wanted to be a part of the corrupt society he’d grown up in. Then there was the complicated relationship he had with his sadistic mother, which I found very interesting (and hope gets addressed more in the sequel). And his feelings toward Helene, one of his fellow Masks-in-training as well as his best friend, complicated things further. Helene annoyed me, to be honest. At times I really liked her, because she was a fierce warrior who could totally wipe the floor with the boys, and she had very different opinions about things than Elias (Helene is loyal to the Empire with a capital L), but her whole lovey-dovey-ness and jealousy weren’t my fave. That being said… I personally disliked the unnecessary love triangle/square in this book (yeah… square… mm-hmm). Can’t any story just have two people who like each other and not have other characters complicating things? The romance is not a focus of the book, thank goodness, but it’s there, and everything that didn’t concern Elias and Laia as a pair just made me roll my eyes.
Also… While there is no actual rape in An Ember in the Ashes, there are many threats of it, and lots of characters talk about it. Rape seems like something that, while frowned upon, is something this society accepts. Rape has happened since the dawn of time and still happens today. It’s a very real problem that is constantly being addressed and should for obvious reasons. I personally dislike it when books (and TV shows — Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey, I’m looking at you) use it solely as a plot device. Just, no. I could go on and on, but I won’t, because it’s clear what my feelings are on the subject. There’s no rape in this book, but the abundant presence of it detached me. I know this is a dark, dark world where dark, dark things happen, but I hated that (SPOILER ALERT! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!) Laia was physically abused (aka. beaten to a pulp) by a man who threatened to rape her and actually might have had if he had not lost his temper, just so Helene could wield her magical powers, prove that she is not a heartless person who doesn’t care about the well-being of slaves, and make a point to Elias that she’s not jealous (when she actually is) of his feelings toward Laia. Oh, also, Elias is the one who saves Laia from her attacker. Like, could we get any more cliche here? Gah. (END OF SPOILER.)
To wrap it up… I did like An Ember in the Ashes (kinda…), but my feelings toward it don’t go beyond that. It’s a complex story with a lot of things going on, and the promise of even more things to come — now that we know there’s going to be a sequel. The world-building was good; it definitely felt similar to Ancient Rome, but with some fantastical elements and even a slight dystopia feel. The story isn’t hugely original, though, but it’s executed well. (SPOILER ALERT! Still… the Trials felt so cliche. I wasn’t expecting the book to go down that path, where it’s a contest to the death and stuff. The Augurs were kind of cool, though, in a slightly creepy way. END OF SPOILER.) Some of the characters were interesting, but a lot of them weren’t: Elias was my favorite, and, as much as I loathed her, I kind of liked the Commandant (in the “love to hate” kind of way) and hope that she’s is in the next book, causing more trouble. (But, actually, the woman’s sadistic. Like, she’s a terrible excuse for a human being who deserves all sorts of bad karma and should rot in hell with Ramsey Snow to keep her company. Maybe?) I’m interested to see where the story goes from here, but An Ember in the Ashes disappointed me. I seem to be in the minority when it comes to how much (or should I say, how little?) I enjoyed it. ♦
So tell me…
Have you read An Ember in the Ashes? If you haven’t, would you be interested to? What was the last fantasy book you read that had its world heavily based on a real-world civilization/time in history? Comment below letting me know! And, as always, happy reading!