Review: An Ember in the Ashes

emberTitle: An Ember in the Ashes
Author: Sabaa Tahir
Genres: Fantasy, Action/Adventure
Pages: 443
Publisher: Razorbill
Review Copy: ARC received
Availability: Available now

Summary: 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.

Review: An Ember in the Ashes got a lot of early buzz this year, and I’m thrilled to say that, for me, it lived up to its hype. Sabaa Tahir created an intricate world with a violent history, militaristic customs, and protagonists you want to root for.

This high-fantasy, Roman-esque world is a brutal one. Tahir doesn’t skirt around the nastier aspects of interactions between conquerors and their subjugated populations, and Blackcliff, the elite military academy, is sort of place that makes everyone watch while a ten-year-old gets whipped to death. Torture, mutilation, sexual assault, rape threats, battle, murder—An Ember in the Ashes isn’t a lighthearted read by any stretch of the imagination. But beyond the physical violence, there are other types of aggression—like forbidding a subjugated people to teach their children how to read—that paved the way for rebellion and treason in many forms.

What anchors this story and infuses it with hope are the two main characters: Laia and Elias. Laia’s desperation to save her brother drives her forward despite the escalating hardships and dangers she endures in her undercover position as a slave at Blackcliff. Her storyline was the most emotionally compelling one for me, particularly when it came to her slow-growing relationships with Izzi, Cook, and Keenan. Elias’s plotline was filled with more obvious peril (or at least, a much higher potential body count), but his desire to escape Blackcliff was just as engaging. His best friend, Helene, was one of the more intriguing characters in the book, and I enjoyed their increasingly tumultuous relationship.

There isn’t much that I can say about the plot without giving large chunks of it away; suffice it to say that Laia and Elias aren’t the only people in An Ember in the Ashes who have secret agendas. The continual upping of the stakes—emotional, physical, and imperial—made for a fast-paced read. While I had a few gripes about the villains—I felt they were terrifying without being especially interesting—this book avoided several potential pitfalls, particularly when it came to the tangled romances.

Recommendation: Buy it now, especially if you love fantasy with strong world-building and a fast-paced plot. An Ember in the Ashes is a solid debut, and I’m definitely looking forward to more of Tahir’s work. The compelling characters and complex plot easily make up for a few minor annoyances.

Extras: First two chapters of the book

Q&A with Sabaa Thir and Renee Ahdieh

Why ‘An Ember In The Ashes’ could launch Sabaa Tahir into JK Rowling territory