An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
Genre: Fantasy / Young Adult
Publisher: Harper Voyager, 2016
Synopsis: Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death.
When Laia’s grandparents are brutally murdered and her brother arrested for treason by the empire, the only people she has left to turn to are the rebels.
But in exchange for their help in saving her brother, they demand that Laia spy on the ruthless Commandant of Blackcliff, the Empire’s greatest military academy. Should she fail it’s more than her brother’s freedom at risk . . . Laia’s very life is at stake.
There, she meets Elias, the academy’s finest soldier. But 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.
I had heard so many good things about An Ember in the Ashes, and seen so much hype for A Torch Against the Night, that I couldn’t resist getting my hands on a copy. Fortunately, I wasn’t disappointed, however, there were a few flaws I’d like to address in this review. So buckle up, as I have a lot to discuss.
But let’s start with the good. Mainly, what I loved about it was how entertaining it was. The blurb doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the number of sub-plots that are weaved within the main arc of the story. The plot was complex and fleshed-out well and, whilst there were some things that grated on me, I was never not entertained or invested.
This especially includes the beginning. It was a fast-paced, action-packed opening that set up the story well. Whilst the action meant there was a fair bit of telling not showing when it came to the world-building and characters, I was still hooked.
Almost immediately, I found myself drawn to Elias’ chapters first. The story is told in alternating points of view from Laia, a Scholar hoping to free her captured brother, and Elias, a Martial trained to be a deadly fighter who wants nothing more than to abandon his post. I preferred Elias’ chapters to Laia’s and found him to be more engaging both in his personality and his situation. He was confident and passionate, but also struggling with his morality. As a result, he was much more enjoyable to learn about and had a stronger voice than Laia. I think I can definitely add him to my list of favourite characters.
However, Laia did display some good character development. When we first meet her, she is a meek and fearful girl. As the story progresses, she begins to find the strength she needs, although slowly. And whilst I really did enjoy having a heroine who wasn’t all badass and could kill a man with one well-time punch, Laia’s constant reminders to the reader of how weak she is did start to grate. Okay Laia, we know you’re a bit of a wet fish, we don’t need reminding; just get on with it.
Nevertheless, whilst Laia wasn’t your generic badass YA heroine, she did fall prey to another trope: the heroine who doesn’t notice just how beautiful she is and how all the men want her despite a number of blokes vying for her affections and everyone constantly telling her how pretty she is. I think I actually prefer the tough girl heroine to the ‘beautiful but doesn’t know it’ heroine.
And this leads on to probably my main issue. Rape is mentioned a lot in the book. Now, I wouldn’t usually mind that, except for the fact that rape was talked about constantly in a casual manner. This is partly where the book falls prey to telling not showing again, as we are often told of how the Martials rape Scholar slaves but never actually see anything. I know that this is a YA book and so scenes of rape may be deemed too distressing, but there are a few almost-rape scenes. However, they only really involve Laia. She is constantly threatened with rape because she’s just so beautiful and the Martial men will simply have to have her. Yet nothing truly happens. Except for the one time where it is about to be attempted by one of the antagonists, only for the hero to swoop in and save her and not actually add anything to the plot. And then when the suggestion of rape is used to stop an antagonist discovering Laia’s real whereabouts. It just felt like a plot device really and it was only ever an excuse for the hero to save the damsel in distress, or as a scapegoat, or to emphasise Laia’s beauty. I know that this is a brutal world, but I believe the display of brutality could have been handled better.
So yes, my main problems really lay around Laia’s characterisation and the flippancy with which rape was threatened. I’ve seen this mentioned in a few other reviews, but mainly it hasn’t been picked up on.
Nevertheless, like I said, I still really enjoyed the story. I loved Elias and greatly enjoyed many of the other characters.
Helene is a character who seems to either be loved or hated by readers. Personally, I neither loved nor hated her. I really liked her, but it was more her complexities that interested me. She really was the most complex character in the book and I applaud Tahir for her excellent writing of Helene. I never quite knew what Helene was going to do in any given situation (but not in a bad way) and, as a result, I looked forward to any scene she would be in. Her relationship with Elias was gripping and there was one scene in particular that I thought was really well written:
When she confesses her love to Elias. That was a great scene and had me on the edge of my seat.
I thought the romances (yes, plural) were kind of up and down in how I favoured them. There were a couple that didn’t interest me, including the main one that we’re obviously supposed to be rooting for, and then there’s one I definitely root for, but I won’t say which as I don’t want to spoil it. However, none of them were instalove!
As for the antagonists, whilst I could take or leave Marcus, I thought the Commandant, Keris, was brutal. Cold, calculating, sadistic, she was an excellent villain, but she still had the complexity that the villain needs, the idea that there was once some good in her but circumstances snuffed it out. Whenever she was around, I worried for the safety of the characters.
Keenan was a secondary character that I thought was fine. Interesting enough and I felt a little sorry for him towards the end. Izzy I also liked, for the sense of purpose she found and her determination.
The writing was also fine. It wasn’t the best I’ve ever read and I didn’t really read any lines thinking ‘wow’, but it kept the pace moving well and did its job. However, one small problem I had was that the language sometimes sounded much too modern and American. When I first read the word ‘jackass’, it really threw me as I wasn’t expecting such an Americanism in a Fantasy setting. And yes, whilst it is Fantasy and not a real world, ‘jackass’ is such an American word and not really used anywhere else in the world that it felt quite jarring.
Which I suppose leads me onto the world-building. I really liked the setting overall and thought it was unique, especially with the Roman inspirations. However, I think it did need more fleshing-out. I’m still unsure as to what the Scholar race are really like. At first I was imagining them as being inspired by a South Asian or Middle Eastern setting, due to Laia’s dark hair and golden eyes, but then the constant references to the Scholar’s thirst for knowledge and philosophy made me think that maybe there were Ancient Greek influences, which would go along with the Roman theme. I was just really quite unsure as to what the Scholars were like and right now I can’t think of any way to describe their culture except for their desire to read and write and learn. I’m hoping that the world-building around the Scholars will be improved upon in the sequel.
So after nit-picking a lot of things, you’d probably think I’d give less than 4 stars. But all in all, I really did enjoy it. I loved Elias, really liked Helene, and I was totally caught up in the story itself. So, whilst there were a few faults, the fact that I enjoyed it so much is why I’ve given it 4 stars.
Overall, Tahir has crafted a good, complex story with a few standout characters, and I look forward to getting my hands on the sequel.
Have you read An Ember in the Ashes? Did you enjoy it? Or do you want to read it? Let me know in the comments below!