I binge read Sabaa Tahir’s debut, An Ember in the Ashes, within hours of its release, but it has taken me a while to compile my thoughts on this brilliant read that is at once frightening, infuriating and heart warming. I doubt I have done justice to the multitude of feelings this book evoked in me but here it is nonetheless:
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, Blackcliff.
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.
What I liked:
An Ember in the Ashes not only features a complex and fascinatingly scary setting/world building but also a complicated web of relationships that goes beyond that of the leading narrators’, Laia and Elias. Every character is well-drawn and multi-dimensional and therefore it is difficult, if not impossible, to define/simplify them into the usual YA relationship tropes.
Laia and Elias share the alternating narrative. They have very distinct voices, distinct struggles and distinct relationships with the secondary characters, which makes the convergence of their narratives all the more exciting and thrilling.
Laia is not your typical YA heroine, in that most of the time she is scared beyond measure with no amount of resources/skills to ease her predicament. What she does possess is a fierce determination that overrides her instinctual doubts and fears and forces her to accept to spy on the brutal and feared Commandant from within Blackcliff in exchange for assistance to free her brother.
Elias is Blackcliff’s poster boy, the son of the brutal and feared Commandant of the academy. He is expected to be a violent brute and uphold the family legacy but Elias is disgusted with the violent and barbaric lifestyle and wants to escape it. Elias struggles are of an existential nature and his battle of conscience is almost palpable given some well-penned philosophical musings by Tahir.
The dark and gritty setting is infuriatingly compelling without being overly graphic. Torture, abuse and rape are rampant to the point where it is expected, entertained and encouraged. The evil Commandant is at the helm of this hell mouth. She is a stomach-turning sociopath and one of the most horrific villains I have encountered.
Finally, there is nothing like a good prophecy-plot to confuse and confound characters and readers alike and An Ember in the Ashes has a very gripping one at its core that facilitates and shapes the larger narrative into a compelling read.
What I did not like:
While I found Elias struggle between his feelings for Laia and Helena understandable, I found Laia’s similar predicament with respect to Elias and Keenan slightly less so. I might even go so far as to say it was unnecessary, because the foundation on which Elias’s and Laias’s relationship developed was far more superior to that of Keenan’s and Laia’s. That being said, An Ember in the Ashes is hardly about these triangles, they are but sub-plots to the greater narrative and aptly interwoven so at to not be overpowering. Ultimately, it was not as bothersome as I expected.
In conclusion, An Ember in the Ashes is one the most compelling YA reads of 2015 if not, YA history. It is a stunningly imagined high fantasy with an evocative narrative and well crafted characters. Get yourself a copy now! You won’t be disappointed.