An Ember in the Ashes
Author: Sabaa Tahir
Release: April 28th 2015
Genre: Fantasy, YA
#1 in the An Ember in the Ashes duology
Sequels: A Torch Against the Night (#2), Untitled (#3, #4)
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 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.
I am awarding this four stars because I see the potential in here, and I believe in it. If there is going to be a sequel — and I really, really hope there will be — then I am counting on it to be as awesome as this easily could have been. Because there are only a few things that made this book less than it could have been, but for me personally they were so aggravating I can't just overlook them.
The biggest issue I had were the romances. Yes, romances, plural. Is this a love triangle, a love rectangle, maybe even a love hexagon? I don't know, but it was a hideous mess. Especially the love triangle concerning the heroine, with male main protagonist Elias at one end and such a random, preposterous, undeveloped figure at the other I am calling shenanigans. We meet Keenan maybe three or four times over the course of the novel prior to the end climax, where at first he wants to turn Laia away with no food and shelter, wants to rob her even of the only thing she has left without hearing her out. He takes her in grudgingly because he has no other choice, and then wants to be rid of her as soon as possible, even threatening to drug her. All in all, he is a fucking third degree douchebag. When he meets Laia after that, suddenly he's forthcoming and civil, one meeting after that, he is smitten with her and another meeting after tries to kiss her and basically implies he's in love with her. At that point, they have maybe exchanged 7 sentences with each other. Of which maybe one had any personal meaning. The fuck? And why is Laia even close to returning the sentiment? They don't know the first fucking thing about each other. They met a week ago. They have barely spoken a single word to each other that hasn't been about anything relating to her mission. What the fuck?!
I could at least understand where the love triangle concerning Elias came from, since he has known Helene all his life and she's his best friend and all that. On top of that, Helene was very prominent throughout the course of the novel and we get to actually know her, and it turns out she is a fully developed character. Keenan was nothing. He had no development, no intrigue, he could have been a grain of sand in the sand dunes for all I cared. He was barely there throughout the whole story, and his "love" for Laia, his relationship with her was absurd and ridiculous. It made me so mad, because in the end, it was so fucking unnecessary. It didn't even create drama. It only served to make me mad.
The other thing on my shitlist is the atmosphere and authenticity. I have studied Latin for six years now, studied the language, Roman culture and history, have read pieces by Caesar, Ovid, Catullus, Seneca, Cicero, Plinius, etc in their Latin originals. I am pretty well educated about the matter. And yet, I never once got the feeling that the story took place in anything that resembled Ancient Rome. It didn't even come close. The setting wasn't an asset, as it could have been, nor was it the Roman story I have always craved and wanted. I've searched a long time for a novel to take place in such a setting, but it doesn't seem to me like Tahir did a lot of research about it to include her setting as a separate character and make it enhance her story, make it richer in detail and ambience, instead it was just there. She never even tried to make it apparent or use it, because there's not even the pretense that she put a lot of value in her setting. It disappoints me so damn much because this story could have been freaking amazing if she'd made use of her setting more, but she never even explains anything about it in detail. Thus, the world-building was sorely lacking, and that even though, for me, it was the one thing I looked forward to the most about this novel.
However, the plot is scintillating and compelling, the main characters are for the most part interesting and charismatic and their dynamics were probably the best of it all. Even though I still think the romances were too overdone and unnecessary, I liked the other relationships well enough — Helene and Elias' friendship outside of their romance, the times when they supported and looked out for each other, those were their greatest moments. Izzi's unwavering help and sympathy for Laia, and even Laia's tense and heated whatever-you-may-call-it with Cook. The main romance between her and Elias also wasn't too bad, because I can see why they would work. I feel this is something the sequel might do well, because I imagine if better developed, they could be a really good pair.
In conclusion, I really did enjoy the novel a lot, as evidenced by the fact that I shoveled it into me in only a day. It has a truly engrossing and entertaining plot, a more or less unique story to tell and is aided by a cast of intriguing characters. I have very high hopes for a possible sequel, which is why I want to support it with my admittedly generous rating, but still.