Series: An Ember in the Ashes
Published by Razorbill on April 28th, 2015
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
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.
There has rarely been a YA fantasy that had me as conflicted as An Ember in the Ashes. For its characters, romance, plot, and world-building I can name both positive and negative aspects. Overall, I’d say it was an entertaining and gripping read with a lot of flaws that are concealed by the drama factor. I’m still going back and forth between 3.5 and 4 stars, though have decided to lower my rating from 4 to 3.5 stars for the time being. With this one, you will have to decide at the end of this review whether you want to pick it up or not, without me giving any specific recommendations. This will be a hit-or-miss kind of book for most readers.
“Fear is only your enemy if you allow it to be.”
Laia isn’t particularly strong or cunning; her strengths lie in loyalty and bravery. She regains composure even after facing near endless horrors at the hand of the Commander and her lackies. Laia’s a genuinely good-hearted person, which made it easy to like her for me. Elias struck me as a bland character at first, but I slowly grew fond of him, because even though he’s supposedly on the powerful side, he has the air of an underdog. Tahir’s message in this book is clear: Just because you’re noble, wealthy, and powerful, doesn’t mean you’re free. The side characters are overall likeable, especially fierce and tough Helene. What concerns all of the protagonists in this book is their shallowness. There’s a difference between ‘enjoyable’ and ‘fleshed out’, and the latter does not apply to the characters Tahir created for An Ember in the Ashes.
The Roman Empire-inspired world is combined with a touch of Middle Eastern mythology. Personally, I think Tahir could have stuck with one culture, as the jinnis and ghuls are only half-heartedly integrated into the story, in my opinion. The world-building, though well done to some extent, is not vivid and informative enough for a low fantasy. Further, Tahir formed her fictional world with a high dose of brutality, violence, and animosity. This aspect was, however, often told more than shown. And I cannot for the life of me understand why a brutal world must be underpinned with rape culture. It is true that the plot is, at times, uneventful but Tahir has a lot of schemes working in the background. After a slower first half, the pacing accelerates noticeably toward the climax. Some of the plot twists are predictable while I didn’t see others coming at all. The ending will have your pulse quicken and long for the sequel (although, apparently, A Torch Against the Night has earned mixed reviews).
The romantic subplot has stirred a huge controversy. Though some have cried “insta-love” from the rooftops, I would not refer to the romantic subplot in this book as insta-love. There is certainly an instant spark between Laia and Elias which can be frowned upon, but their feelings mostly entail attraction and lust, not love. There are no cheesy declarations of love rather acts of attraction. Some may think that this diminishes the quality of their relationship but I found it to be fairly realistic. Physical attraction put aside, I enjoyed their interactions and the way they were able to offer strength to each other. What I did find rather annoying, though, is that Laia is one of many female slaves but is immediately noticed by Elias, apparently because of her beauty. Like, thank you, but we’ve had enough of this in YA fiction. And, of course, the geometrical romantic constellations frustrated me to no end. A love (lust?) triangle is enough to bear, even if written well, but a love square? Please. The tragic thing is: This story could have really, really done without such a trope.
There are two kinds of guilt. The kind that’s a burden and the kind that gives you purpose. Let your guilt be your fuel. Let it remind you of who you want to be. Draw a line in your mind. Never cross it again.
In a nutshell, An Ember in the Ashes is a YA fantasy like any other. We’ve got a seemingly lost cause for a quest, a brave heroine and a misunderstood love interest, a brutal world, an action-packed plot – and somewhere along the storyline, the author thought it might make matters more interesting to spin several romantic subplots. This reeks of frustration, I know, but it was honestly a fast-paced, gritty read with a high level of tension. Though if this sounds like something you’d enjoy reading, you’ll have to decide for yourself. No recommendations.