Book Review # 50: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Saturday, 18 July 2015
Title: An Ember in the Ashes
Author: Sabaa Tahir
Publisher: Razorbill
Format: Hardback
Publication Date: April 28th 2015
Pages: 448
Source: Bought

PurchaseThe Book Depository / Waterstones

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.

This is a book that I knew ever since it was announced that I knew I would love. To me it sounded like the Legend Trilogy by Marie Lu with a hard focus on Roman culture. This was exactly what I expected and An Ember in the Ashes definitely exceeded all of my expectations. I thought it was absolutely fantastic! Everyone I have spoken about this book with seems to really enjoy it and just from reading the first few chapters it's very clear to see exactly why. With a fast paced plot that has you on the edge of your seat and well developed characters, An Ember in the Ashes is a stunning debut that keeps your heart pumping throughout. So what did I think of it?

The plot of this book is not one that is dissimilar from the stereotypical tropes found in common YA fiction. One character wanting to escape from their society and another character fighting with the resistance following a family tragedy. What was powerful about this novel was that while the usual tropes were there, Sabaa Tahir manages to twist these in unusual ways that make the reader really engage with the story. We're pulled into a world divided into class between the martials and the scholars. We are briefly introduced to the history between these classes and we're given information to understand why each of the characters do what they do in the novel. My only question was whether we were given enough. As the novel takes the majority of the place in Blackcliff we as readers are provided with significant amount of detail as to it's purpose and it's history but unfortunately I felt as if the information regarding the scholars was severely lacking. I understand the purpose behind the resistance but I felt like I would have just liked that little bit more- perhaps we'll see this in the sequel. The strongest point of this novel's plot had to be the emotions and effect that it evokes in the reader. Sabaa Tahir's debut is a compelling and heart-pounding read that really takes hold of it's reader and forces them to become engaged in the story as if they were actually there themselves. For me, this was beyond impressive as I found myself feeling so strongly for the characters because of the situations they were in. I loved the roman inspired culture that was interwoven throughout this novel, it really worked to it's full effect. 

The world building in this book was phenomenal. Actually, beyond phenomenal if that is even possible. While the history of the scholars could have been slightly more developed as already discussed, the rest of the world was constructed to perfection. Sabaa's writing was extremely fluid and detailed and this allowed for a very visual representation of her world to be formed in my mind. I did not struggle at all or get confused while reading this book as to where the characters were in terms of setting. Even the festival scene in the scholar's zone was beautifully written. The description of all of the colours and sounds and smells - Sabaa Tahir fully utilised the potential for including each sense. It really pulled me in as a reader and allowed me to formulate a picture in my mind of exactly how everything was supposed to be like and how it felt to be there. I loved the integration of all of the challenges in the story and Sabaa's writing really helped me visualise what was going on because some of those challenges were in depth and really tried to mess with your mind! Sabaa also has a very distinctive way of writing pure evil in this book, and i'm not necessarily referring to any characters in particular, but there were definitely scenes that had my skin crawling and me flinching away at what was occurring on the pages before me. Very intense and not many books have ever made me do that!

As for the characters and their relationships with one another, there was a vast array of characters that each had their own distinctive qualities that set them aside. I found myself enjoying the majority of the characters but there were a few who I didn't quite gel with and would definitely like to see more of in the sequel. These characters were mostly the ones in the resistance as I didn't feel we got to see as much of them as we possibly could have - I know I definitely enjoyed reading more of Elias's point of view because of this. The primary character that I had an issue with was Keenan. I didn't understand his character at all and I questioned many times his use in the story. To me, Keenan was just utilised as a potential love interest for Laia and I didn't think it was effective at all. I found him to be extremely dull and didn't have much depth to his character. In this novel we're introduced to a very explicit and complicated relationship system, formed of two major love triangles centred around our main protagonists Laia and Elias. In the centre of the triangle they feel a connection for one another but looking beyond we have Keenan's interest for Laia and Elias' interest in Helene. Whilst I didn't feel the interest for Keenan was at all feasible, I did however see interest in the relationship between Helene and Elias because it was developed from the beginning. There was already friendship between the two so it was a lot easier for me to accept a possible romantic relationship in the mix.

Looking closely at our two main characters, I found each of them to be extremely fleshed out. Sabaa Tahir is the genius of creating natural passion in her characters and I found that it worked really well in the case of our two protagonists. Passion comes in many forms but in this case I found it to be pushing the boundaries more of aspirations and dedication to a cause. For Elias it was trying to escape Blackcliff whilst for Laia it was trying to save her brother. These passions were constantly touched on as the story progressed so it was nice to see some progression for these areas as well. As I mentioned before I preferred Elias's POV over Laia's but I think this was primarily due to the action that was injected into his character's scenes. I did however thoroughly enjoy Laia's. In this novel we're also introduced to an array of interesting side characters, in particular one of my favourite villains in YA literature: the Commandment. She was a chilling and very disturbing character to read about - her motives literally had me sat on the edge of the seat, teeth chattering to see what torturous things she did next. As well as the evil Commandment we also meet Izzi the kitchen slave and Cook. I loved both of these characters, they really added to the story. Izzi for her shy yet resourceful nature and Cook for her blunt charm and her tragic background. Each of them made this book for me and I hope their story doesn't end here!

So overall this was a very dramatic and intense read and I'm not surprised with all of the hype it is getting - it's definitely worth all of the praise. I'm so glad that the publishers decided this book was worthy of a sequel because there was no way that story could be left as a standalone because it's left me craving more of this world. It will definitely be interesting to see where this book takes off from. It makes me sad that we have to wait almost a year before the next book is out! I award An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir a 4 out of 5 star rating. A compelling and bone chilling book for anyone fan of dystopian type societies with a hint of roman culture!

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