I WILL TELL YOU THE SAME THING I TELL EVERY SLAVE.
THE RESISTANCE HAS TRIED TO PENETRATE THIS SCHOOL COUNTLESS TIMES. I HAVE DISCOVERED IT EVERY TIME.
IF YOU ARE WORKING WITH THE RESISTANCE, IF YOU CONTACT THEM, IF YOU THINK OF CONTACTING THEM, I WILL KNOW
AND I WILL DESTROY YOU.
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.
This is a great beginning to what I anticipate will be a fantastic and thrilling series. An Ember in the Ashes provides readers with a “slow burn” reading experience (haha, get it?). The development of this Rome-like world was fantastic, and the novel reads a bit like a dystopian fantasy. But be forewarned: fantasy elements play a very minor role in this debut, though the stage is set for them to have the spotlight in future installments. Despite originally being marketed as a standalone, Penguin picked up the sequel recently so we will be getting more Laia and Elias! Speaking of which, we’ve got some pretty cool characters here. Laia goes through a TON of character development that is a joy to read, while Elias is strong from the start, but has a bunch of deep stuff to figure out as the book progresses. Connections can be drawn between this book and the Legend series by Marie Lu for sure, but An Ember in the Ashes is not nearly as fast-paced.
The writing style is raw in that Sabaa Tahir doesn’t try to hide anything from the reader. There are no euphemisms, no gawking at bloodshed, no reprieve from the cruel and calculating world she has built. And it is incredible. I give Tahir a lot of credit because she really exposes the darkness of the Empire and its subjects to the reader. Brothels, sexism, raping and abuse of slaves, and cold-blooded murder are not shied away from and, while gruesome to read at times, I have so much respect for Tahir for allowing us to see it all. In addition, there’s not much glamorization of either the Empire (run by Martials) or the Scholars (brutally subjected by the Martials). We get to see the good and bad of both, and the history behind why these peoples are what they are. The novel is very political, very militarily based, while showing us two sides of a convoluted story. That being said, this style lends itself to a darker, heavier reading experience. But it’s a brilliant one.
However, I have to give this debut a 4/5 stars because the first half and a bit (I estimate 5/8 of the book) was very slow and not much happened in terms of a climax. This book was a very slow build and it is well worth it in the end, but I could’ve set the book down for quite awhile and not felt a burning need to know what happened. The entire book, from start to finish, is good. I enjoyed the first half and it was well written, but I was confused about all the hype surrounding this novel until reaching the halfway point. The second half or so definitely lives up to the crazy hype this book is getting. (I also want to add that I picked this book up immediately after finishing Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses, so my judgement on “excitement” might have been a little skewed early on in An Ember in the Ashes.)
I couldn’t really get into the alternating POVs until close to the end. For me, they were a bit disruptive to the overall reading experience. Each chapter would end on a cliffhanger and because the two protagonists’ tales were not always intertwined, it was a juggling act keeping track of timing and events. That being said, overall, I preferred Elias to Laia, despite the latter’s exponential character growth throughout the novel. I was surprised that the two characters had such little interaction as I was expecting them to work together like Day and June from Legend pretty much the whole novel. But in hindsight, I like how Laia’s and Elias’s interactions ended up being limited because they both got to share their stories almost separately. I think that’s what this novel called for. And next novel, they’ll be together alllllll the time. 😉
The weird love square (actually, two love triangles really) seemed fake/artificial/forced. Keenan is irrelevant. There was no attempt to develop the relationship between him and Laia and so I couldn’t take them seriously. I understood the confusion and struggle in Elias’s and Helene’s relationship, and I liked the budding friendship/chemistry between Elias and Laia. Unfortunately, Keenan will probably emerge somewhere down the line to create some romantic drama and tension. I’m not looking forward to it.
Let’s talk Helene. This girl is Hermione Granger on steroids. She takes rule-following to the EXTREME. I actually really liked Helene overall. I respected her, she was an awesome female warrior, but sometimes her callousness and inability to care about Scholars, slaves – basically anything unrelated to being a Mask for the Empire – drove me mad. She had such little compassion for those beneath her while Elias had an overwhelming abundance of compassion for the very same people. But Helene’s saving grace is that she is a great friend; she’s loyal to Elias above everything but the Empire. I’m hoping we’ll get to see more character growth from her in the future, because I want to love this girl, I really do. JUST DO THE RIGHT THING, HELENE. HAVE SOME POST-CONVENTIONAL MORALITY (thanks, AP Psychology).
Now time for the Commandant. Oh, Lord. The Commandant is Elias’s mom and the head of Blackcliff military academy. And she’s absolutely crazy. Never in all of my life have I read a character as horrifyingly cruel as her. She terrifies me. I am TERRIFIED. At the end, we get a glimpse into her past and why she despises her son (and wants him dead, I might add), and I’m desperately hoping that we will uncover the layers of her character as the series goes on.
Other characters I really enjoyed were Gens Veturius (Elias’s grandfather and personal cheerleader), Spiro Teluman (blacksmith who’s full of kindness and mystery), Izzi (slave who befriends Laia), Cook (stern slave who turns out to be a butterball at heart), Sana (faction leader of the Resistance) and Cain (Augur who aids Elias). I’m curious to learn more about the mysterious female who appears at the end, Cook (who has a hidden past with the Resistance and with Laia’s parents), Lord Nightbringer (the dethroned Jinni king), and Teluman and Darin, Laia’s brother (who we see nothing of past the first few pages, but who unconsciously guides the plot of the book). Characters I hated: Marcus (probably my least favorite character, incredibly vile and cruel), Zak (not too bad except he’s a wimpy bystander to Marcus’s antics), Mazen (the leader of the Resistance) and the Commandant (she’s really interesting and a great antagonist, but absolutely unlikeable). Oh, and I despised the Mask that murders Laia’s innocent grandparents in the opening scene and then tries to rape Laia. (It’s an exciting first chapter.)
I found it fascinating that the masks the Masks wear bind to the skin on their necks and faces so that eventually they cannot be removed. Creepy much? I’m excited to find out more about the old Jinni world of magic and also to experience more of the Empire than just Blackcliff and the city it’s located in (which I’m not even sure we ever got a name for?). Also, the cover is gorgeous. It is hands down one of the most beautiful covers I’ve ever seen and it fits perfectly with the story. Sorry for all the rambles! I am all over the place with thoughts and tidbits on An Ember in the Ashes.
I recommend reading this dystopian fantasy set in a technologically-advanced, Roman-Empire-like world. You’ll enjoy the entire ride, but get through the first half and you’re golden.