Title: An Ember in the Ashes (An Ember in the Ashes #1)
Author : Sabaa Tahir
Publisher : Razorbill
Release date : April 28th, 2015
Rating : 3.4/5
Synopsis (from Goodreads) :
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.
An Ember in the Ashes was waaaay too over-hyped. Reviews from people I follow, headlines assuring us “it’s the next Game of Thrones”, comments from authors I know and respect. Everything indicated towards the absolute genius of this novel, and I was absolutely excited to get my hands on it.
When I saw the map at the beginning, I was like “oh boy, I’m in for a ride!”, because I LOVE maps, and it usually foretells a pretty amazing, adventurous and fantastical story for the readers. You know it, I know it: there are always new cities and groundbreaking discoveries and new cultures and candies for the imagination. And here is my first (the biggest) disappointment: An Ember’s world-building is mediocre. The Empire is supposed to be a vast expanse of wealth and power, and yet, what the map shows is that it’s actually Blackcliff and wasteland. We know nothing of this Empire, except for the contradicting authority of an all-powerful yet easily killed Emperor, the sparse history bits of how society turned on its head, the brutal way in which the elite student soldiers are being treated, the investment they represent in the way they’re being trained and, ultimately, the waste it operates by killing off most of them by the end of their training. Oh, did I forget to mention the Trials? The Trials are a series of tests, from which the new Emperor will rise. Basically, they are four giant bloodbaths, which disregard anything related to diplomacy, money management, land management and, really, anything to do with being a political leader. Is that it? That is it. I feel completely underwhelmed by the lack of information, of anything else, that could actually have contributed to a “world-building”.
The Augurs, mysterious beings with some sort of magic, can see the future. And what a future they’ve seen for our male protagonist! Elias’ story revolves around a prophecy they saw. At the beginning, Elias had a goal and some ways to achieve it, but the revelation that he’s destined for something greater makes him question everything, and that’s what keeps him moving in Ember. I liked Elias. No love, no admiration, just like. He’s one of the top students at Blackcliff, but he doesn’t agree with its values and how it modeled him. He’s very smart and strong and talented, skilled with weapons and quick on his feet. He’s a pretty picture of a protagonist, and that’s why I can’t not like him. But, as you can tell, my interest is merely superficial.
Laia, on the other hand… I would’ve liked her as a normal person, but she couldn’t handle the situation she’s in. Laia is not a warrior or a seasoned spy. Her family was betrayed by their own, and she lives in constant fear of being sold as a slave. Her brother, the only family she has left, was taken from her, so she’s desperate to find him. She goes to immense lengths to form alliances that could help her out, but selflessness and naivety aren’t a great mix. For a person living in those circumstances, one would expect them to toughen up a little, to be guarded and wary. But holy hell, she’s not. She can’t even stand up for herself, and falls in the trope of the damsel in distress, waiting for a hero to save her. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t tell you why, but keep in mind that she lacks common sense in what is probably the most dangerous period of her life. However, I like her liveliness, and her determination. Her chapters weren’t dull, at least.
As for the secondary characters, my feelings are mixed. My favorite character in the whole book is Helena, Elias’ best friend. She’s feminine and badass, two traits we rarely see in one character. She’s pretty well fleshed-out, having her own pages from time to time. She has her own ideals, and doubts, and doesn’t follow Elias around like a good puppy but really stands up to him. But, I guess, in order to create a balance with an amazing secondary character, Tahir had to create an amazingly flat one. The Commandant is just pure evil. That kind of unalloyed sadism doesn’t have its place in a book with a proficiency with character nuances. She has all the power she needs, BUT isn’t it fun to mutilate the truly helpless just for fun?? Please recycle her.
Something I really liked was the romance. I use the word “romance” lightly here, as I wouldn’t label it as romance or love, but more like attraction. Elias and Laia, the main protagonists, didn’t fall in love, as I expected. What I mostly felt between them was attraction, because they’re both in bad situations. But what really got my attention is how Tahir handled the making of a love triangle. It was much more reasonable and interesting than most YA love triangles I’ve read so far. In most YA novels, the girl (because, sadly, it’s usually a girl) can’t decide who to choose between a swoony-perfect-kind boy and a swoony-misunderstood-bad boy. OR, to make things even LESS interesting, who to choose between two EQUALLY swoony-perfect-kind boys. But what I realized in Ember, is that this triangle isn’t about which one is cuter, but rather about whose personality would actually complement the other’s. It’s about what path choosing one over the other would lead to, and about choosing and prioritizing what matters. I have my own personal ship, but I fear it may not be the best one for the person in the middle of this triangle. So I’m probably in for some heartbreak.
The writing in itself was fairly good. Tahir didn’t shy away from creating a dark and miserable world, where rape is abundant (too often mentioned, even) and slavery is common. Although we don’t see an explicit rape scene, Tahir manages to make us feel its threat strongly enough that she doesn’t need to include any scenes of sexual assault. There are, however, loads of bloody violence. There is nothing juvenile about Ember, and I believe adults will enjoy it just as much as teens.
Overall, some things didn’t click with me, and those flaws pop out too clearly to my eyes. I wasn’t as excited as I expected to be, but An Ember in the Ashes is, nevertheless, a very strong debut YA fantasy novel.