An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
Published by: Razorbill
Publication Date: April 28, 2015
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult, Dystopian
Extent: 446 pages
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.
…As long as there is life, there is hope.
I AM AN EMBERLING. Just so that I can get this declaration out of the way. An Ember in the Ashes was risk for me. I thought that either Sabaa’s debut novel will burn, or it will fall. And it burns indeed! I have not devoured a book with such intensity in a long while.
Lately, Goodread has been heating up with fantasy stories that take place in the desert, have non-Caucasian protagonists who kick ass, and destroy many expectations. I hoped Ember might contain the same traits. But Sabaa’s work is more than these qualities, though. It morphs into a character-driven gem that travels with you for days after finishing it. Sabaa has a raw talent that, I hope, will continue to evolve into something breathtaking.
At first, I didn’t think that having two POVs would hold up, but Sabaa creates an effortless transition from Laia, who is a Scholar, and Elias, who is a Mask at the Blackcliff Military Academy and son of the Commandant. I enjoyed both POVs. From them, I could see how this haunting and savage world breaks its people. Sabaa creates such a captivating realm that entrances and scares you.
Laia––who escapes being arrested with her brother, Darin, or killed with her grandparents––becomes a spy (and therefore the Commandant’s slave) for the Resistance, the very one her mother and father led, so it can save her brother. Her character development is slow, but she beautifully evolves from a self-doubting child to the Lioness’ daughter who gives her her body and her safety in order to find Darin. Now Elias is my favourite character. I first thought that he might be cliché. But his rebellion is more than defiance. Relentlessly beaten down, he must conform to the Empire’s will. The Martials give him no choice but to desert. But his desire for escape is destroyed when the Augurs, the Empire’s holy people, declare the Trials. Cain, the leader of the Augurs, gives him the choice to run or to fight. He doesn’t surprise me when he picks the latter.
I’d rather die than live with no mercy, no honor, no soul.
What I love about Ember is that Sabaa brings back long-feared creatures that the Empire forgets and how she creates her multi-complex world. On every page, she builds on this dominion. From beginning to end, every dark alley of Ember enchanted me. Sabaa keeps you on the edge; she has a way of tricking you into believing you’ve figured out her work, when, in reality, she weaves in these surprises that will floor you.
What surprised me the most was the love triangles. Yes, they’re in Ember, yet they’re not the central point. I do not find them distracting. They illustrate how people have little to live for and will risk to find solace in a dark and twisted world. It is indeed sick. Not many books will conjure up strong emotions in me, but there were times when I was livid. I was rooting for the Commandant’s and Marcus’ death. Sabaa does the Roman Empire great justice! I believe the only downfall Ember has is the cliffhanger. Coming in at a later time, I’m glad there’s sequel. But I’m still counting down the days to A Torch against the Night pub date!
Sabaa forges a heart-pounding fantasy that will certainly stand among the great YA novels.