Saturday, April 18, 2015

An Ember In the Ashes (a book review)

An Ember In the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Release date: April 28th, 2015
Publisher: Razorbill
Pages: 443

Set in a terrifyingly brutal Rome-like world, An Ember in the Ashes is an epic fantasy debut about an orphan fighting for her family and a soldier fighting for his freedom. It’s a story that’s literally burning to be told.

LAIA is a Scholar living under the iron-fisted rule of the Martial Empire. When her brother is arrested for treason, Laia goes undercover as a slave at the empire’s greatest military academy in exchange for assistance from rebel Scholars who claim that they will help to save her brother from execution.

ELIAS is the academy’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias is considering deserting the military, but before he can, he’s ordered to participate in a ruthless contest to choose the next Martial emperor.

When Laia and Elias’s paths cross at the academy, they find that their destinies are more intertwined than either could have imagined and that their choices will change the future of the empire itself.


I mentioned in my "Ten Bookish Goals For 2015" post back in December that I wanted to read and review a debut book. After consulting the owners of our local bookstore, I was handed this one. I went into it with high hopes and was not disappointed. (And it also helped me with my "read more fantasy" goal!)

An Ember In the Ashes sounds like it could be a dystopian book from the description, but it is so, so not. It's definitely fantasy, more like a Roman gladiator story than anything else. Yes, the government officials are terrifying and evil and brutal, but they are not President Snow or Jeanine Matthews. The story reminded me of Girl In the Arena (though a much, much better version of it) and the Mortal Instruments series.

The book is told through dual perspectives; Laia, an undercover slave working as a spy to free her brother from prison, and Elias, a once dutiful soldier who's having second thoughts. Though I liked both of the characters a lot, only Laia's perspective managed to keep me interested all the way through. Elias' got better over time, but his beginning was flat and confusing. I had to fight through his chapters for the first hundred pages until things started to pick up. Luckily, I love characters who try to infiltrate a system from the inside or work as a spy (think Charlie Bradbury from "Supernatural" or the members of the Order of the Phoenix), so Laia's storyline kept me hooked.

It's a familiar enough premise--imperfect fantasy society told through dual male and female perspectives--but has unique aspects that set it apart from the others like it. I love both Laia and Elias for different reasons. Laia agrees to be a spy for the Resistance, which is a group of people fighting the system, and becomes a slave for the cruel ruler, the Commandant. She needs to give the Resistance information in order to free her brother, who was captured by the government. Elias is a soldier participating in a competition to see who will become the emperor, but he feels conflicted about the way things are and forms a kind of friendship with Laia.

There are few characters who are central to the story, though sometimes it was hard to keep track of Elias' friends, who hardly did anything except confuse me. Laia was probably my favorite character, along with the more timid slave, Izzi. Laia was not ferociously brave and self-sacrificing like lots of young heroines are nowadays. She was scared, and she didn't like getting hurt, but she was able to find enough bravery to keep pushing for the sake of her brother. She didn't have bravery thrust upon her, but she grew into it, which I thought was really cool to see. Izzi was the slave she bonded with, and I like the friendship the two of them have. Laia brought Izzi out of her shell a little, and Izzi was sweet to her.

Elias is a character to feel sorry for. His mother is ruthless, and treats him like a soldier rather than a son. He has a rocky relationship with his best friend as the book goes on and their values start to change. He's constantly having to choose between what is right and what will keep him and his friends safe. And he has to figure out if his friends are really his friends.

I had a hard time with Elias' best friend, Helen. I liked her at first, then I didn't, then I wasn't sure. She's a confused character brought up in a world where she's taught that it's okay to kill people simply because you believe you're better than they are. I still can't decide if she's a bad guy or just someone in need of a friend to teach her what's right.

As for the plot, yes, there sadly was a love triangle. *sighs heavily* Maybe even a love square? I don't know. The whole time there was confusion from all of the characters, pointed looks and sleepless nights. Overall, it just wasn't believable for me. I knew the whole time which two characters would end up together (and though I won't spoil it for you, I was right!). It wasn't central to the plot though, thank god, so I can get past that.

The ending was satisfying, but definitely left room for a sequel. Nobody's sure if there's going to be one as the publisher only bought the one, but it sounds like there might be a movie! It would make a great movie if anything comes of it.

All in all, I would give this book

If you like fantasy, dual perspectives, and undercover spy work, this book is for you!

Have you read this book? What did you think? And what are your thoughts on love triangles/squares?


Boquinha said...

Great, thorough review! And that's extra nice that you got to check off one of your 2015 goals by reading it. I did read somewhere on Facebook (when I looked up the author and found events for the book launch) that it's been optioned for a movie. Exciting!

The Magic Violinist said...

@Boquinha I should read a debut book every year! :) It was really fun to go into it blind. I really hope it becomes a movie!