An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
Publication Date: April 28, 2015
Rating: 4 stars
Source: ARC sent by the publisher
Summary (from Goodreads):
I WILL TELL YOU THE SAME THING I TELL EVERY SLAVE.
THE RESISTANCE HAS TRIED TO PENETRATE THIS SCHOOL COUNTLESS TIMES. I HAVE DISCOVERED IT EVERY TIME.
IF YOU ARE WORKING WITH THE RESISTANCE, IF YOU CONTACT THEM, IF YOU THINK OF CONTACTING THEM, I WILL KNOW
AND I WILL DESTROY YOU.
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.
What I Liked:
This book has a lot of hype surrounding it, and usually, hype turns me off. A lot of reviewers have read this book and LOVED it. There has been plenty of interest in this book for months. I featured it months ago, in December, as a "Waiting on Wednesday" pick, and it was pretty popular then. I was honestly terrified that I would be utterly disappointed by this book, because of the hype. Fantasy is my favorite genre, but the hype is a big turn-off for me. Thank goodness that wasn't the case with this book.
Laia's brother Darin was taken by Masks of the Empire, and thrown into jail for allegedly working with the Resistance (which he wasn't). Laia finds the Resistance, convinces them to find a way to help Darin, but that means she'll have to work as a slave for the Commandant of the Blackcliff military academy. Elias is a student there, the finest of the rest. And he wants to desert, just after graduation. But the Trials are this year, and he, his best friend (and only female in the academy), and two of his archenemies are chosen to participate. Whoever wins becomes the new Emperor. Laia has to pretend to be an obedient slave girl while risking her life to get information to the Resistance. Elias has to pretend to want to win the Trials, while trying to stay alive at all. Both will need each other more than they realize, if only to stay alive, but also to change the ways of the Empire.
The world-building and setting of this book are the first things I want to comment on - woah. You have to read this book to really experience it, but the world-building is so intense. I honestly can't think of a better way to describe. Well-written, rich, powerful, intense. The entire book is intense, and you feel like you have to hold your breath the entire time, but in the best of ways. Tahir masterfully created the world of this book. I've never read anything quite like it - there were some qualities similar to Pierce Brown's debut series, with the brutality. This book has plenty of adult crossover appeal. I've seen the Rome-like comparison made when referring to the world - that is a very accurate comparison! Even the names are Roman-ish.
The story is so intense. I'm going to keep using that world. I've never read anything that FELT quite like this book did. Rather, I've never felt as tightly wound as I did while reading this book. It was almost difficult to read, because I kept holding my breath, waiting for the Commandant to chop off some of Laia's fingers, or disfigure her face, or for Elias to get caught in his original plans to desert, or him getting caught by just being himself - not cruel and heartless enough.
I really liked Elias. He hates the academy, and what he has become. He hates watching one Yearlings die for stupid reasons, for trying to desert. He wants to be free, to live his life, and not to be a pawn and a weapon to anyone. Elias is very smart, very strong, very talented. He pretends well, but many can sense that he does not want his place at Blackcliff. Nevertheless, he is a fierce warrior. We get to see Elias's first person point-of-view every other chapter, between Laia's.
I liked Laia a lot. She isn't a warrior, a hardened soldier, a seasoned spy. She's a girl whose brother was taken from her - her only family. She's desperate and selfless enough to subject herself to the mercy of the Commandant, and she pays for it over and over. Laia is smart, and learns quickly. She is full of life and feeling, and isn't broken at Blackcliff. We get to see her first person point-of-view, alternating with Elias's.
Both character undergo immense character development. Both characters have to come to terms with terrible actions, with the past, present, and future. Elias faces awful tasks for the Trials, sometimes being for to kill his comrades. Laia lives in fear of being tortured by the Commandant, and of her brother being executed. She dare not make friends at Blackcliff, lest the Commandant use them against her. Laia makes incredibly difficult decisions throughout the story, and becomes more sure of those decisions by the end of the book. The same goes for Elias.
The romance is weird. There is romance, but I can see the makings of a love triangle. Yup, don't be fooled by the alternating points-of-view. That doesn't automatically mean there's your pair. I don't like the idea of a love triangle in this amazing book, but the thing is, the book was SO GOOD, and the romance was so secondary... it's hard to hone in on only the potential love triangle. Also, notice how I'm saying "potential". I don't know. But it still bothered me (see below). In any case, I'll be shipping Elias and Laia from now until kingdom come. They didn't fall in love and have a deep relationship and blah blah blah cliches, but they definitely have an attraction, and care for each other, and I'd like to see this relationship grow.
The story is awesome and terrible and powerful all at once. I say "terrible" as in how-dare-you-play-with-my-emotions-Sabaa-ahhhhhhh-omg. This is one of those books that constantly has the potential to break your first, from the beginning. One of the protagonists dies? One of the protagonists is imprisoned? One of the protagonists is in trouble? Sure, these are all possibilities. Which makes this book so intense. Again, intense. And amazing!
The ending is... fair, ish. There isn't a cliffhanger, and I suppose you could end this book in such a manner, and have no sequels... but this book would be even better if readers knew that at least one sequel would follow. We don't know this. So, the ending is good, but I would like it more if I knew there was more to come. If this book ends like that and there is nothing to follow, well, then this ending isn't the best (in my opinion). How can so much about the Empire be left to readers' imaginations? No no no. The author resolved nothing, in terms of the Empire and the Resistance. And the romance - I'd prefer it more solid. There has to be at least one more book.
What I Did Not Like:
Like I said above, there are the makings of a potential love triangle. Which pisses me off. Why ruin a perfectly amazing fantasy novel - totally creative and original - with a love triangle? Of course, not everyone sees a love triangle as "ruining" a book, but that's my personal opinion. I don't particularly like this love triangle either. Notice how I don't mention a third character. I don't care for him. It's not that I don't like him... well, I don't like him as a love interest. So. Cliche.
Also, in general, the whole training and academy and bloodthirsty leader of the academy thing is getting a bit worn out. A lot of fantasy novels are featuring some sort of game or contest in which contestants are seriously tested, and have to do terrible, impossible tasks that are meant to break them. And then at the end of the book, the game is in an uproar because of the resistance. I'm not even spoiling anything. This is a common plot skeleton I've been noticing over the past year, in YA fantasy novels. Grrr. It's a great plot arc, but it's getting to be a bit overused, in my opinion.
So while I found the world-building and setting utterly original and intense, there still were plenty of cliches in this book. Let's not forget that pesky old love triangle.
Would I Recommend It:
YES. I don't care what faults I found in this book. It's so so so good and I totally recommend it to fantasy and non-fantasy fans alike. You'll want to read it in one sitting, like I did (there's no way you'll be able to rip yourself away, anyway). It will hit you hard and make you want more!
4.5 stars -> rounded down to 4 stars, because of the potential love triangle, cliches, and the open-ish ending. I wish we could know now if there will be another book! It matters to my rating! Also, there needs to be a second book in general, rating or not. I need my questions answered!
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