Book Review: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Genre : YA Fantasy
Date Published : February 9th, 201
Publisher : Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Random House

Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

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. 

An Ember in the Ashes was one of the many, many books that were pitched to me at this year’s Siren’s Conference during their book speed dating shindig (not kidding when I say going to that made me buy 5 books, and I would have bought more if my suitcase had been bigger). It was pitched to me as a story about a girl who is forced to spy for the resistance on the big bad Empire, where her unlikely ally turns out to be the best soldier the Empire has ever trained – who just so happens to despise everything that the Empire stands for.

Some quick background on the plot before diving in. Laia is a Scholar – the class of people who have been oppressed and enslaved by the Martials, the class of people who have pledged themselves to the Empire. Within the Empire is a school called Blackcliff, where young boys (and the occasional girl) are trained until they become ‘Masks’ – the most fearsome soldiers of the Empire, discernible by the silver masks that literally meld to their faces. While the majority of the scholars are forced to endure raids on their houses and being forced into enslavement, there is a group that has formed a resistance, which once included Laia’s parents before their death.

The overall plot is very Hunger Games-esque, especially once the trials are introduced at Blackcliff – four grueling tests that Elias, his best friend Helene, and twin brothers Markus and Zak are chosen to participate in in order to determine who the next emperor will be. This of course throws a twist in Elias’s plan to desert the Empire, a feat that no Mask-in-training has been able to achieve without being caught and then publicly executed. What makes things even more complicated is that the runner up of these trials will be named the Blood Shrike – who must pledge loyalty to the new emperor – while the two losers will be put to death. And Laia is caught in the middle of all of this since she is undercover as a slave to the Commandant – who just so happens to be Elias’ evil and murderous mother. Talk about high stakes.

“Like all Scholars, I learned to lower my eyes before the Martials, but at least I never had to bow and scrape before them. At least my life was free of this torment, this waiting, always, for more pain. I had Nan and Pop, who protected me far more than I ever realized I had Darin, who loomed so large in my life I thought him immortal as the stars.”

– Laia, Chapter XIX.

I have to say that I enjoyed Laia’s chapters far more than Elias’. She was more likable, and her plot of unwillingly joining the resistance in order to save her brother was endearing and compelling in ways that Elias’ never was for me. The people she met – the kitchen girl Izzy, Cook, the blacksmith, Sana, and Keenan (who we’ll get back to in a moment) – were so interesting, and the main thing I’m bummed about is that we didn’t get as much of these side characters as I wanted. I almost found myself wishing that Laia would spend more time with them than with Elias. Which brings me to my next topic – the love triangle (or love square? I don’t know, it was complicated).

We pretty much know from the get-go that Elias and Laia are going to have a thing for each other. But when they meet, it just felt….weird. For starters, Laia is undercover at the time, and Elias registers that she is enslaved, but his second thought is about how sexy she looks and how that is going to cause trouble for her, so he tells her to dress differently. I think that was supposed to be endearing, but I found it to be, well, creepy and bleh. He also constantly compares his hardships (which yes, he does have) to Laia’s despite them being vastly different. Elias overall kind of gave me bleh vibes – especially in one pivotal scene where it is made clear that he cares more about Laia, a girl he barely speaks to over the course of the book, than Helene, his best friend of 14 years who, you guessed it, is in love with Elias.

That’s the first love triangle. Now enter Keenan – one of the resistance soldiers. With flaming red hair and a grumpy personality that sometimes gives way to true concern, his relationship with Laia was more what I was expecting from the book. And yes, I know this book is part of a bigger series, and I’m sure that Keenan is going to do something awful (I have my theory on who he is), but at the moment, I’m rooting for him over Elias, and I can’t wait to learn more of his backstory.

Overall, I did really enjoy An Ember in the Ashes. And I knew I enjoyed it when I was getting closer to the end, not initially realizing that it wasn’t a stand-alone book, and thought to myself, “Wait, this can’t be how it ends! There has to be more! I need there to be more!” And thank goodness there is more! A Torch in the Night and A Reaper at the Gates are book two and three (and I believe book 4 is on its way in 2020), so there is a lot more to this story that I can look forward to, and I get to read more of Tahir’s beautiful prose! (I should mention that I did get through this book in a singular day, because Tahir knows how to tell a story and keep you hooked!)

What I’m most looking forward to is the fates of certain characters, especially Darin – Laia’s brother – and Helene (she deserves so much better!!!). There were also quite a few little hints at what could be coming next (such as the introduction of some supernatural elements that will play a huuuggeee role in the future), as well as some prophesied destinies being fulfilled. And I can’t wait to see how Laia is going to continue to grow, because she underwent a lot in this book, and the ending gave us a quick glimpse on how strong she is going to become.

My rating:

7.5 Silver Masks out of 10


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