Genre: YA Fantasy
Pub. Date: April 28, 2015
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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."Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother in a world reminiscent of ancient Rome. They live in a humble abode in the poor section of the Empire and they don't attract too much attention. Well, that's what Laia initially thought. However, her brother seems to be involved with the Resistance, much to her surprise, and in the middle of the night, their house ends up being ransacked by the Masks, an elite group of warriors for the Empire. Her brother is arrested for treason and while she escaped, she plans on finding the Resistance with the hopes that they will help her rescue her brother before his imminent death. Then there's Elias, a solider at Blackcliff Military Academy and son of the infamous Commandant. One would think that he is revered by his powerful mother, but that is not the case; in fact, Elias is against everything the Empire stands for. While he is strong and an elite fighter, he doesn't agree with the violence and misuse of power that runs rampant at Blackcliff, so much so that he wants to run away. But all that changes when he finds himself competing for the throne, that is if he can actually survive the Trials. Sabaa Tahir's An Ember in the Ashes is an engaging debut and although it's filled with violence and dark themes, it has incredible world-buidling and a compelling plot.
I wish I could say I loved Laia from the beginning of An Ember in the Ashes, but I didn't. She was just an ok heroine for me; to be honest, I wanted more from her. She is a bit too timid for my liking. I was hoping she'd be more like Katniss, but that didn't deter the fact that I was rooting for her from the beginning. I just wish she would have saved herself a bit more often. I do find her quest admirable though when it comes to saving her brother; however, she was just so naive about the whole thing.
Now regarding bad a** chicks, there's one of my favorite character, Helene, Elias's best friend. Now she is the kind of girl I love when it comes to fantasy novels. I wanted more from her as I found her to be especially intriguing. She is not only a fellow student at Blackcliff Military Academy and one of the only females, she is also one of the best fighters. She remained me of Rose from The Vampire Academy series and that's high praise.
Also, Elias was one of the best parts about An Ember in the Ashes. He's a complex character, not just a tough guy and he is driven by his morals. I loved that he wanted more for himself than to just be a solider for the Empire and I was hoping he'd escape the Empire's clutches. Once he starts competing in the Trials, that only added to the suspense. Man, those trials are brutal and had me on the edge of my seat.
The world building was superb in An Ember in the Ashes. That's where Tahir truly excels. What a compelling world! It was sort of a mash-up of ancient Rome meets The Hunger Games and I loved being lost in it.
What rubbed me the wrong way with An Ember in the Ashes was the sexual violence. I often found myself wincing more often than not, especially with all the references to rape and abuse/imbalance of power. I wish Tahir didn't rely on some of these plot devices that I found to be very unsettling. Also, regarding the violence, the Commandant is extremely cruel and the scenes involving her torturing others definitely almost made me put down the novel for good. There's so much bloodshed! But I had to know what was going to happen to Laia and Elias.
Despite my hesitations regarding the brutality and sexual violence, I could easily see why An Ember in the Ashes was a runaway bestseller. I needed a book to get me out of a possible reading slump and that it did. I will definitely be reading the second book in the series, A Torch Against the Night, which just came out this August.