“An Ember in the Ashes is a thought-provoking, heart-wrenching, and pulse-pounding read. Set in a rich, high-fantasy world with echoes of ancient Rome, it tells the story of a slave fighting for her family and a young soldier fighting for his freedom.
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 the rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy. There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier – and secretly, it’s most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s been 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 far exceeded my expectations, which were admittedly rather high. The hype around this book was undeniable, but so well deserved. Set in an unforgiving world inspired by ancient Rome, this novel weaves together the stories of two characters from completely opposite backgrounds – both of whom are desperate for freedom that’s long-been denied to them. Sabaa Tahir’s debut novel is exemplary, and she created a narrative so compelling that I couldn’t seem to turn the page fast enough. (I read this on my kindle, but you know…I couldn’t press the “next page” button fast enough doesn’t sound as good.) This novel is even split-POV, which we all know I don’t like…and it worked for me in this book. After reading An Ember in the Ashes, I’m convinced that Sabaa Tahir is my newest auto-buy author, and I cannot wait to devour whatever she writes next. Which had better be a SEQUEL, DAMN IT PENGUIN.
Before I go off on that tangent, I have Things To Say about these characters. Laia, our main female protagonist, was an amazing character. Unlike so many other YA female protags, Laia felt so realistic because she has real growth throughout the novel. In the beginning she isn’t strong or blindly committed to the rebellion – she’s scared, and considers herself a coward. It is only through her fierce commitment to finding her brother does she become more confident and willing to take action. Her personal development is inspiring to read, as it never feels rush or unrealistic. Elias provides a great juxtaposition to Laia – he’s supposed to represent the Empire, to become a Mask and kill in the Emperor’s name. But Elias wants nothing more than to escape and become free unto himself. Before he can carry out his plan to desert, Elias gets chosen to participate in the Trails, which will decide the future Emperor. I enjoyed Elias and appreciated his struggles, but there are moments when he errs on the side of dude-bro territory. “Dude, my best friend is in love with me? Now I’m gonna be completely worthless for a while so I can feel weird about it but it’s totally her fault.” This is not a spoiler because it’s so damn obvious from the very beginning. So yeah, Elias has his moments but on the whole I thought his perspective was quite compelling.
Side note, my favorite character may be Helene, the only female Mask and Elias’ best friend. She was, simply put, amazing. I would read an entire book just about Helene (once again, hint hint Penguin). I know, unsurprisingly, my favorite parts of this book were the brilliantly crafted characters and excellent world building. I like what I like, and I loved An Ember in the Ashes.
The only issues I had with this book that prevented it from a five-star rating happen at the very end of the book. The ending felt rushed, so I had to reread pages at a time to figure out what exactly was happening, which was confusing. This is something I find myself saying more as I get older, but I could have done with less romance. There’s a sort of love-square thing happening, but I didn’t feel strongly about any of those pairings, and I think they were rather unnecessary and detracting. My biggest issue with this book is not remotely the author’s fault, but nevertheless influenced my reading experience. An Ember in the Ashes is a standalone novel, so at this point there is no sequel – unless Penguin decides to green-light one. Which, seriously? We live in a world where trilogies are the norm, even when they’re completely unnecessary. This is an instance where it’s totally necessary. But while there isn’t a proper cliffhanger at the end of An Ember in the Ashes, the ending didn’t feel sufficient to me. I want another book, I need to know what happens to these characters. PLEASE PENGUIN, I WANT SOME MORE.
In short, this was amazing, I’m so glad I read it and cannot wait to read whatever Sabaa Tahir writes next. If you enjoy fantasy, ancient Rome, rebellions (I mean, who doesn’t?), then you should check it out. Even if you don’t, and just want a really kick-ass read, this is still the one for you. Let me know in the comments if you’re intrigued by this book, and what you’ve been reading lately!
Goodreads: 4.5 / 5 stars