Sabaa Tahir – An Ember in the Ashes

Ah what the hell, I’m only a year late. Actually, I tried to read this book during my last holiday (during June 2015) where the temperature – if not the tropical climate – would have been wonderfully fitting. But, as things go, I put the book away after a few chapters because I just wasn’t in the mood. Now that I read it, however, I have no idea how I managed to find a spot – ANY spot – in this book where I would put it down. It is one of the most page-turny books I’ve read this year.

an-ember-in-the-ashesAN EMBER IN THE ASHES
by Sabaa Tahir

Published by: Razorbill, 2015
Ebook: 453 pages
Series: An Ember in the Ashes #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: My big brother reaches home in the dark hours before dawn, when even ghosts take their rest.

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.

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Oh my glob, this was SO EXCITING. Like, good for raising your blood pressure exciting. But also keeping you up way past your bedtime and then showing up to work like a corpse the next day exciting. But I swear, every night spent reading this rather than getting some much-needed sleep was totally worth it. So if you pick this up, be warned what the effects will be. Okay, now that’s out of the way, let’s get to the bones of it.

The beginning of the book sets the tone for the rest of the story and it was much, much darker than I expected. As this happens in the very first chapter, it’s no spoiler if I say that… well, people are brutally murdered, a family destroyed, and a girl traumatised right at the beginning. And holy shit, I think I stopped breathing for a while when I read this. The protagonist Laia tells of these horrible events and then takes her chance to flee, to save herself from the same fate. Her brother, although still alive, is apprehended by a Mask (a super creepy military ninja police dude… more on them later). Her “cowardice” haunts her and she resolves to save her brother. That beginning already, despite being truly terrifying, was such a breath of fresh air in a YA book. Not only does the protagonist lose almost everything right in the beginning, but she runs away. She is no magical brave super-powered woman who can mysteriously kick people’s asses and save the day. She is a scared girl who wants to survive. So yeah, I loved Laia.

In alternating chapters, another person tells their story. Elias, almost finished with his training to become of those dreaded Masks, wants out of his life. Since he was six, it has been spent at Blackcliff Academy, where children are brutally trained to become amazing warriors and cruel enforcers of the Emperor’s rule. Oh yeah, I forgot, all of this takes place in a sort of alternate Roman Empire. I adored the names – Elias Veturius, Helen Aquilla – they gloriously melt on your tongue. Anyway, Elias plans to desert, being rather sick of a life watching his friends be flayed, beaten to death, “weeded out” during training for being too weak… so you see, more horrors coming your way.

The plot really kicks off when Laia starts working for the Resistance (because every evil Empire needs a Resistance) in exchange for them saving her brother from prison. She enters Blackcliff Academy as a slave girl, spying on the most feared woman in the entire Empire – the Commandant. This woman was straight up evil! She was responsible for the heart-stopping excitement I felt while reading this book. When Laia risked something, and spying is in and of itself a risk, I was truly afraid she would get caught and punished for it. And punishment by the Commandant might invole anything from a simple flogging, to losing a limb or eye, to being carved up like a ham. Talk about a great villain!

But that’s all I’ll say about the plot because otherwise I’ll just retell the entire book right here. There were things I truly loved about An Ember in the Ashes, and others that felt old and tired. Let’s start with the good stuff: the friendships. Elias and Helene have been best friends forever, and although growing past puberty and graduating from Blackcliff have changed their relationship, I loved how loyal these two were to each other. Things get pretty rocky along the way, and even though not everything turns out alright, I really appreciated the friendship between these two. Not as much as I appreciated the friendship between Laia and her fellow slave-girl Izzi, though. Reading Laia’s perspective, I immediately cast myself in her role, trying to think like a spy, suspicious of everyone and everything. But a true and wonderful friendship evolves out of shared fear and pain and the one thing that keeps them all going: hope.

Sabaa Tahir drifted into trope territory when it came to the romance(s). I knew and actually hoped for a budding romance between Elias and Laia, but to make things interesting (I guess), their feelings for each other are complicated by what turned out to be a love… square. Love triangles are old and boring and usually resolved really badly. Here, each of the protagonists has a second potential love interest. That would have been a-okay if the descriptions of their feelings and reactions to each other weren’t all exactly the same. To me, this read very much like Laia just gets excited when she sees dude A and gets excited when she sees dude B. Elias was a bit better as his reactions to his two girls differed slightly, if only because there was more backstory there. That’s all I can say without spoiling, but although I liked the descriptions of these new (to them) feelings, the secondary love interests seemed totally forced and unnecessary.

Back to stuff I liked: The world-building and magic. Yes, there’s magic, if not exactly front and center. The Roman Empire thing is a great idea, simply because it isn’t medieval England. But Blackcliff has a lot more to offer in terms of imagery and internal workings. The Masks, for example, are called Masks because they wear masks (duh). But masks that meld to their face and eventually can’t be taken off. So there’s a bunch of people running around with silver faces – that is super creepy! But the way Blackcliff works and trains its soldiers, is also intriguing. Terrible, yes, but amazing to read about. The Augurs, and the various mythical creatures that crop up every now and then, are a whole different story and I can’t wait to find out more about that part of the world in the sequel.

Another thing I didn’t like was that so many chapters ended in cliffhangers. It’s a cheap trick that reminds me of Dan Brown. Yeah, sure it worked, it kept me reading for hours and hours on end, but it also got annoying pretty quickly. I know I’m being manipulated, book, it’s fine, you can give me one chapter to breathe and get a coffee or have a toilet break.

And last, but definitely not least, my favorite part about this book was Laia’s character development. Awakening sexuality aside, it was fascinating to watch that scared, naive little girl grow up and realize just how strong she is. By the end of the book she’s still scared, don’t get me wrong (and I wouldn’t like her otherwise) but she has learned to use her fear, to work through it, to do the right thing anyway. She was incredibly naive and gullible at first, but grew more aware of her surroundings and the way people can manipulate and lie to each other. Way to go, girl!

This has turned into a very long review, although I left so many details out – that should tell you that these 450 pages really have some meat to them and aren’t just descriptions of how pretty people are (still looking at you, Sarah J. Maas). I loved the reading experience and would recommend this to anyone in a reading slump. And make sure you have the sequel ready because I’m throwing all my reading plans overboard to dive right in.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

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Click image for a cool article on the creation of this map of Blackcliff Academy

Click image for a cool article on the creation of this map of Blackcliff Academy

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