“An Ember in the Ashes” by Sabaa Tahir
4 out of 5 stars.
After a raid by Martial legionnaires, Laia is left without a family, without a home. She would be dead alongside her grandparents if it hadn’t been for her older brother, Darin, who sacrificed himself so that she could flee into the night. The guilt and shame of her cowardice that night is suffocating her, and Laia is determined to free her brother from whatever terrifying prison the Martials have condemned him to. Afraid and alone, Laia discovers a rebel group that agrees to help save her brother from the Martials, but the deal is not without its risks. To get Darin back, Laia must pretend to be a slave at the Blackcliff Academy and serve the most deadly person within its walls: the Commandant. One wrong move and Laia could die, and then she’ll lose her one and only chance at redemption, at saving her brother.
Elias has been planning his desertion of the Blackcliff Academy for some time now. He loathes the Academy for all of the death and pain he has inflicted upon others in its name, and he wants nothing to do with it anymore. The day he graduates, Elias plans to leave Blackcliff and its horrors behind him forever; his only regret is lying to his best friend, Helene and that he will have to leave her behind when the time comes. But if she knew, faithful Mask that she is, she would tell on him and he would end up in a Martial prison or worse. Secrets and false sincerity before the Martial Empire has kept him alive at Blackcliff, and a few more days of it won’t kill him. Freedom is within his grasp and he won’t waste his one and only chance at having it.
As Elias and Laia fight to gain their freedom from the Martial Empire, their paths cross and these two unlikely allies will have to rely on one another to survive. With the odds stacked against them, can Elias and Laia find the freedom, the redemption, they crave, or was fate against them from the start?
Sabaa Tahir’s debut was truly amazing. I am so impressed that this was her first novel because of how well-paced and developed the story of “An Ember in the Ashes” was, and I was also impressed with how dynamic and fleshed out her characters were. Sabaa created a vivid, lush, and evocative world that drew me in from page one. For world building alone this book deserves four stars!
Sabaa Tahir’s world in “An Ember in the Ashes” resembles the Roman Empire, and her social dynamics between the Martials and the Scholars were reminiscent of the relations between the Romans and Greeks. Rome conquered Greece, they stole their culture and “Romanized” it while enslaving the Greeks, and they claimed all of the Mediterranean as theirs. The Martials did to the Scholars exactly what Rome did to Greece, and another similarity was that the Scholars were the philosophers and slaves whereas the Martials practiced warfare and dominated by force, killing or enslaving those who do not submit to their authority. I really liked “An Ember in the Ashes” for the fact that, at moments, it felt like a historical recounting of those two civilizations, and I loved how I could see the influences of Grecian and Roman dynamics reflected in this book’s social and cultural atmosphere. Another reason why I loved learning about Sabaa’s world was because the more I knew about it, the more easily I could understand her characters and where they were coming from.
I really enjoyed Laia’s as a character. Most of the reviewers on goodreads and on some of the blogs didn’t like Laia’s perspective because they felt like she was weak and too timid to be a “good” heroine. In their opinion, she was no Tris or Katniss, and I thank God for that! To be quite honest, the things that reviewers didn’t like about Laia are the things that actually made me like her. Laia had grown up under the tyrannical and oppressive rule of the Martial Empire, and Scholars such as herself were treated like dirt. Because of that, Laia fears and timidity made sense to me. She wasn’t a go-out-and-conquer-the-world kind of person, even though she desperately wished she was; Laia wanted to be brave and courageous like her brother and her parents, but she didn’t know how. I loved Laia because she was real, she had fears that overwhelmed her and made her keep quite when she should speak up, but she was also kind and she loved her family fiercely and wanted to protect them. Characters like Katniss and Tris are very irritating to me because of how cold and unfeeling they can be towards people, and yet they are hailed as amazing people and strong females. Yeah, sure, they can kill someone at the drop of a hat and without batting an eyelash, but those kinds of actions don’t equate a strong person. I liked Laia because she had an amazing heart and she wasn’t a warrior in the physical sense. As “An Ember in the Ashes” progressed, however, she started to grow a lot as a person and she became a much stronger, and more courageous individual. Laia had paralyzing fears, but she slowly learned to not give in to them or allow them to control her life.
I also loved Laia because she responded to the horrors of her world similarly to how one of us actually would, yet she grew as a character into a strong young woman who could be brave despite her fears, even if she couldn’t wield a sword all that well. I think one of the things I loved so much about this book was that Elias’s and Laia’s characters showed very different kinds of strength: mental, emotional, and physical strength. Both Elias and Laia were strong individuals, but they had very different forms of strength.There are so many ways a person can be strong, and I like that Sabaa showed so many of the forms that strength can come in through each of her characters and the journey she took them on.
Elias was a great male lead. I thought that he was quite interesting considering his situation (being a Martial, and a Mask at that) and how he’d still retained his humanity, and it made him all the more dynamic. Elias’s main struggled was with figuring out if he could still have a soul after what he had done throughout the years, but as a reader I could see that he still had a good heart. He wasn’t malicious like a lot of the other Masks and despite some of the awful things he had done, I liked Elias a lot. He was complex and fascinating, and I found his struggle between surviving and keeping true to who he actually was to be engrossing. I wanted for him to be free of Blackcliff and its never-ending horrors, but time and time again, Elias got sucked back into that awful place, and it wasn’t until he met Laia that the cycle shifted so that it could be broken.
It took until about halfway (or just over) through “An Ember in the Ashes” for Laia and Elias to really meet each other; they had encountered one another before, but not like this, where I as a reader could see something come in the future from that moment. This wonderful scene that Sabaa Tahir wrote happened when Laia and her little friend from Blackcliff were in the Scholar district while a festival was taking place. In those handful of chapters, Laia and Elias met, and it was so lush and vivid compared to the grit and grime of the rest of the book that those chapters ended up being my absolute favorites in this book. I wish that there had been more scenes like that one or that it had at least lasted longer because it was just so good! I felt like it also developed Laia’s and Elias’s personalities outside of Blackcliff, and I liked seeing them in a different environment. In that moment, “An Ember in the Ashes” wasn’t just gritty and harrowing, it was magical and beautiful. It was also the only real moment where I felt like Elias and Laia connected. I shipped them for that scene, but there just wasn’t enough of that in the remaining half of “An Ember in the Ashes” for me to SHIP them completely; I liked Elias and Laia separately, but I had yet to reach shipper level beyond that one scene.
Helene, Elias’s best friend, is the last character I want to discuss in-depth. Helene was the other “main” character in “An Ember in the Ashes” despite the fact this book did not shift entirely to her perspective. A lot of people preferred Helene to Laia as a female lead, and I can see why: she’s a more likeable version of Katniss Everdeen. Helene is a warrior, a Mask, who held her own in the Blackcliff Academy. She was also the only female recruit on the Academy’s grounds, and she and Elias had a lot of history together. Helene was far more likeable to me than Katniss, but she still exuded the same instinct to kill rather than evaluating the consequences that could result from her actions. She was fiercely faithful and loyal to those she loved and I really admired that about her, but I still felt like she was too abrasive for my taste. I didn’t dislike Helene, but I was not the hugest fan. She was a strong female character in both determination and physical attributes, so I won’t discredit that. Helene was a strong, independent, and smart character, and I thought that her and Elias’s dynamic was interesting, but I just preferred Laia’s quiet determination of overcoming her fears to Helene’s ferocious desire to be the best at the Blackcliff Academy.
All of Sabaa’s characters were pretty amazing, so I think that the only thing that I didn’t like about “An Ember in the Ashes” was the supernatural element. For me, the creatures and special powers that were interspersed throughout this book felt a bit unnecessary; Sabaa’s world was already amazingly well-designed and I was completely engrossed, and I also liked that idea of it being more like a high fantasy in the sense that the world was epic, yet had those Greco-Roman themes. Lots of people loved the supernatural creatures added to this book, but for me, they were a little off-putting and they felt a bit random in the already extremely gritty world that Sabaa Tahir had written. I did love the metal-like masks that soldiers like Elias wore, but beyond that, I don’t feel like the supernatural elements ended up being pivotal to this story.
Other than the mythical creatures and supernatural abilities that were incorporated into “An Ember in the Ashes,” I really liked this story. A lot of brutal things happened in it because the world itself was brutal and unforgiving, but Sabaa Tahir did a great job of creating characters and moments that reminded her readers that there is always hope, and people have the ability to change the world if they let that spark stay alive. Laia and Elias were sparks, embers, in a world of despair and pain, and they held great power within themselves because they didn’t let their hope burn out. They fought back against the soul-crushing hopelessness that consumed those around them with all they had, and I cannot wait to see how Sabaa plans on revolutionizing the world they live in.
This book is definitely not for the faint of heart or those looking for a light read, but I ended up liking it a lot. I would recommend “An Ember in the Ashes” to fans of the “Prince of Persia” movie, or anyone looking for an epic fantasy book to read!