An Ember in the Ashes – An Ember in the Ashes #1 – Sabaa Tahir
Release date: June 4th, 2015
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Age Group: Young Adult
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.
If I look back at how I’ve been feeling about Young Adult books the last couple of years, I have to admit that have been mostly negative. Especially when books got quite the hype, somehow I didn’t get it. So I was a bit reluctant to believe the hype that surrounded this book. With a Goodreads rating of 4,32 stars and a synopsis that hinted at typical Young Adult storylines, I was scared that this was going to be another book that just wasn’t for me. But somehow, I loved it. It has all the elements that should make me not like it, but somehow Sabaa Tahir managed to weave it into a story that had me completely hooked.
Laia lives with her brother and her grandparents in the poorer neighbourhoods of the Empire. They are all so called ‘Scholars’, which is a class of people defined by the exact characteristic the name refers to. They are ruled by the Martials, a wealthy and ruthless class of people that are trained specifically to stay in power. Her parents were rebel leaders of the Revolution and were murdered by the Martials. Her brother has been sneaking out during the night for the last few months, but Laia doesn’t want to ask why. When he comes home one night and asks her to hide his sketch book that he always carries with him, she alarmed that he might have done something dangerous. Their house gets raided by Martials and a specially trained assassin, a Silver Masks, because they suspect her brother of working together with the underground rebels who want to overthrow them. They take her brother into custody.
Laia manages to escape and tries to find the rebels her parents leaded so long ago and together with them hatches a plan to infiltrate the Martial academy to get inside information in return for their help in freeing her brother.
The other point-of-view character is Elias Veturius, a boy who is in his last year of training at the Military Academy to become a Silver Mask. However, he doesn’t feel comfortable being this cold, ruthless person they want him to be and he plans to run away after his graduation. He has a best friend, Helene, who he has this strange chemistry with, but his mind is more on escaping his military future than on anything else. His grandfather, Quin Veturius, is the patriarch of the genus Veturius and a powerful, rich man. The curious character in his family though is his mother who is also the Commander of the Military Academy. There’s no love lost between mother and son, which has also soured her relationship with her father, Quin.
When the mysterious and almost mythical Augurs come to fulfil a prophecy they made a long time ago regarding the next Emperor, he has a difficult dilemma put before him. Will he leave, or will he stay and fulfil his destiny and try to make the Empire a better place?
I’ve read some reviews pointing out that the names for the different layers of the society (Scholars, Martials, etc.) are a bit easy and unoriginal. I think I will have to agree with them on this point. It’s not very imaginative and it probably could have had more exotic, made-up names that went with the fantasy world. However, it simplifies the story to a certain degree and that’s not always a bad thing. It gave more room to focus on the character development instead of the world.
It is quite obvious that at some point both main character’s paths will cross and as I mentioned before, this does have typical elements of a Young Adult book, so it seemed pretty likely that they would fall in love. However, both also have other love interest, which make it a bit more tense and uncertain. In the end I really liked the chemistry between all these characters and how it led to certain confrontations, but never seemed to resolve into one particular relationship. It leaves a lot open for the next book, which will have the more romantic souls among us definitely yearning to read more.
I’ve always been a fan of a sort of “games” format in books, where there are for example different trials for the main character(s) to overcome. That’s probably another reason why I liked this book so much. An Ember in the Ashes chose to utilise a darker side of this. These particular scenes were some of the most cruel and emotionally heavy, but somehow it fit very well with the story and only made it stronger. The fact that I didn’t know what the trials were going to be and how they would turn out, added that element of surprise that I love when reading.
I really enjoyed most of the characters. Elias is definitely a complex character and his part of the story was probably my favourite. His internal struggle to do the right thing while being born on the wrong side of the good-evil balance was really powerful. He also had some difficult choices to make and he definitely decided to follow a path I would never have chosen. Another one of my favourites was Helene, his best friend. She’s such a strong and vulnerable person at the same time, it left me rooting for her. She is very loyal to her family and to the Martials, but her loyalty for Elias rivals that which gives her a lot to think about too. The chemistry between them is palpable and made for some enjoyable reading. I think my third favourite character was the kitchen slave Izzi, who grew up in the Military Academy as a kitchen slave to the Commander. She’s like a delicate flower that completely blooms open throughout the book.
I think you can see from this review that the character development for most of the characters was definitely one of the main positives in this book, along with the actual storyline. I already aluded to it earlier, but in terms of worldbuilding we don’t get a lot. It didn’t bother me personally, there was enough going on to distract me from it, but I would love to see a bit more in the next book.
In the end I was really sad when I finished the book because I wanted more. I can’t wait to buy the second book and get reading again, because the book ended on quite a surprising note and I’m dying to know what happens next.