The hype is strong with this one. At one point, An Ember in the Ashes was everywhere we looked. From newsletters from big websites and emails from the publisher to (positive) reviews everywhere including on big media places like Mashable, Huffington Post and the New York Times, the book has been touted as the Next Big Thing and as one of those rare standalone Fantasy novels to boot.
Title: An Ember in the Ashes
Author: Sabaa Tahir
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Publication Date: April 28 2015
Hardcover: 446 Pages
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.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone, possibly more to come?
How did we get this book: ARCs from the publisher
Format (e- or p-): Ebook
TRIGGER WARNING: RAPE
In a brutal world under the Martial Empire, Laia is one of the oppressed Scholars and Elias one of the elite Masks, the super warriors of the empire. Laia lives with her grandparents hiding the fact that her deceased parents were former members of the Resistance. When one tragic night her house is invaded by Masks, her beloved grandparents killed in front of her eyes and her brother taken to prison, Laia has no choice but to seek the Resistance’s help. Stumbling upon their headquarters (seriously), Laia is told to go work undercover as a slave to the most brutal person in the Empire: the Mask’s top commander. In exchange for information, the Resistance will help free her brother.
on the other side of the tracks Elias is a Mask, soon to finish his training in the Blackcliff Military Academy Mask Academy to become a fully-fledged elite soldier. He is the commander’s son and one of the best soldiers ever but he hates it. He hates his work, he hates the academy, he hates the way the Martials rule and he is planning to defect – only to be told by one of the Empire’s mysterious Augurs that he shouldn’t. That there will be a chance for him to be completely free should he participate in the coming Trials to Emperor.
It feels like An Ember in the Ashes is working with every current popular trend in YA: a worldbuilding that mixes Ancient Rome and Arabian Nights; a society that oppresses a portion of its people and the revolutionary faction working to overturn its rulers; two alternating viewpoint narratives between its two protagonists – a young girl from the oppressed class and a young man from the ruler class; add to it a love quadrangle and an increasingly dark and violent background for a measure of “edginess” = bestseller. Which, ok, fine, in theory.
But the execution leaves a lot to be desired and my frustrations with the book are many. But first, what does work: Laia and her arc. Laia is a quiet, shy, remarkably skill-less protagonist who is placed in an impossible position. She does everything in order to save her brother and her journey is one of resilience and quiet resistance – I appreciated how for example, she doesn’t suddenly become Super!Spy!. Her loyalty for her brother is keenly felt as are the relationships she develops with other women in the novel. I liked that a lot and I appreciated the “ember in the ashes” analogy within her arc.
With that said, I derived very little enjoyment from everything else. The worldbuilding had many plot holes and clichés and the prose was not to my liking.
With regards to the worldbuilding, it’s funny because one of the most common compliments the novel has received is that the worldbuilding is “fully realised”. I couldn’t disagree more. Take for example, the Trials: it’s kinda like Survivor meets Gladiator, in which four competitors go through trials and the winner becomes emperor. They provide exhilarating moments in the novel, yes and are a great source of pain for Elias. However, does it make sense that this Empire – as bloodthirsty as it is – would make its elite warriors (who are often also members of the social-political elite) fight each other to death and effectively OBLITERATE their own ranks?
Similarly, Mask Academy does not accept women in their ranks. Usually. Except once in a while they will take ONE. At the moment, the current token female Mask is Helene – one of the best warriors and Elias’ best friend (and potential love interest). We are told continuously that the world here doesn’t treat its women well, that women are not good fighters and let their feelings get to their heads, that’s why women can’t join Mask Academy. How does that make sense? Why have the one then? Then we have the fact that the COMMANDER of the MOST IMPORTANT ARMY in the land, is a woman. How did she even get there in a supposedly misogynist world that disparages women? There is no internal logic.
Speaking of women: one of the constant elements of the “worldbuilding” is how women are under rape threats all the time. I lost count of the times this threat is repeated in the novel. But here is the thing: the threat of gendered violence is wallpaper, background decoration that is used more as a shorthand for how bad things are in the Martial Empire. Who are the women getting raped? What happened to them? What are their stories? We don’t know – we never know – especially because it’s the male characters who worry about their friends getting raped, all the time. Rape here is not only used as background decoration to show how “dark” the world is but also used as motivation for the male characters. Worst of all: rape threats are continuously linked with “beauty” – a female character slave or not, should worry about that threat the more beautiful they were. As though rape is a thing that happens only to beautiful women and wasn’t directly connected to power.
I was not very fond of the writing style and the reliance on internal monologuing either. An example:
At scim training, Zak comes at me with unusual sloppiness, but instead of obliterating him, I let him knock me on my ass because I’ve caught a glimpse of blonde across the field. What does that lurch in my stomach mean? When the Hand-to-Hand Centurion screams at me for poor technique, I barely hear him, instead considering what will happen to Hel and me. Is our friendship ruined? If I don’t love her back, will she hate me? How am I supposed to get her on my side for the Trials if I can’t give her what she wants? So many bleeding, stupid questions. Do girls think like this all the time? No wonder they’re so confusing.
It doesn’t help that the novel also featured a protracted love quadrangle as both protagonists had other potential love interests beyond each other. The novel is peppered with absurd near kisses that made the romantic side of the novel comically PG especially when compared to the extremely graphic violence.
Finally, given 1) the amount of money thrown at this and 2) the sheer amount of threads left open, including its unresolved ending, I am going to say there is no way this is a “stand alone” novel. No way.
What else can I say? I read it, I finished it and I feel like I am possibly the only person on the planet who didn’t like it. But I’ve played Bad Smuggler too long. Over to Thea, I believe she has a different opinion.
This is a review in two parts. First, a general reaction to An Ember in the Ashes and my own complicated feelings towards the book. Second, an actual review of the elements that worked and didn’t work, addressing some of Ana’s points above.
Let’s begin, shall we?
Part the First: The Feels
OK. So here’s the thing: my rational brain knows that there are plenty of problems with An Ember in the Ashes. It recognizes that there are plenty of eye-roll inducing moments (particularly where the romantic subplots are involved), and it also recognizes the window dressing treatment of the threat of rape.
And yet… despite my rational brain realizing these things, it also enjoyed reading An Ember in the Ashes. Very much. This is an immensely readable book, with some strong – if utterly familiar – central ideas (A society that is clearly broken! The threat of ghuls and djinn and efrits! The Coming of the Dark!), sympathetic main characters (romances aside), and a compelling writing style (I disagree with Ana on prose).
The book is utterly reminiscent of a number of others – Pierce Brown’s Red Rising (which I love) and Veronica Roth’s Divergent immediately spring to mind – and… well, it works. Sabaa Tahir ticks off all of the formulaic checkboxes that need ticking in order to craft a generally entertaining and competent bestseller.
And I think that’s ultimately how I end up feeling about An Ember in the Ashes: this book is entertaining, generally competent, and reminiscent of several other books (all of which do it better than EitA)…but it does the trick.
Does that mean An Ember in the Ashes is actually a good book?
Well, not really? It’s the equivalent of that fun, explosion-filled action blockbuster that hits during the summer that you enjoy for a few hours and forget about later. It’s packaged and positioned perfectly, and it delivers exactly what it promises to deliver: a diversion that is reminiscent of other, better books.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Part the Second: The Analysis
Having said my bit about my general opinion concerning An Ember in the Ashes, let’s talk a bit about what things did work, and analyze what did not.
On the positive side, I completely agree with Ana in that protagonist Laia’s arc is fantastic – and I love having a central heroine who is not magically superior, or a warrior, or fated to save the world. (At least, not at this point in time.) Laia is a quiet girl who wants no part of the revolution against the Martial Empire, who wants only the safety of her family and the few meager friends she makes on her journey, who wants nothing of suffering or pain or cruelty. She longs to keep her head down, and to listen to her grandmother and grandfather, to enjoy the company of her brother, and proceed as she has always proceeded. Laia is afraid. She thinks of herself as weak and cowardly for letting her brother be taken away, for not being strong enough to fight back or rebel like her mother and father. One thing I love about this book is that fighting isn’t always the answer – certainly in Laia’s case, it’s not. The most skilled and brutal warriors do not necessarily hold the answers (in fact, the most skilled warriors are largely the villains of this book) – and I love that the solution to Laia’s entire arc, and the main conflict of An Ember In the Ashes is the opposite of violence. (In more than one way, Laia reminds me of Sansa Stark of Game of Thrones, to be perfectly honest.) That’s a cool thing.
Similarly, while Elias Veturius is a typical Hero who Loathes What He Has Been Forced to Become, I enjoyed his arc immensely (and even though my rational brain knows this is a typical superior privileged dude arc, I fall for these arcs in fiction all the time). He’s Darrow of Mars in Red Rising; he’s a big damn hero on whose shoulders the fate of the Empire rests… or does it? Elias is a familiar character, but as with Laia’s arc, he’s not actually the fated character who will restore balance to the force. Ultimately, Elias craves freedom – from his mask, his school, his Empire at any cost (even death). And, while I am loath to read books with alternating he/she protagonists (because inevitably it’s a technique to prolong a crappily-written, super-cheesy romance between the two main characters), I enjoyed both Elias and Laia equally as narrators and protagonists. I don’t know the last time I felt that way about this particular narrative device set up.
Also done well: the worldbuilding in An Ember in the Ashes. I disagree with Ana. I feel that the world was small in scope – what lies beyond the Martial Empire and the walls of the city? – what little we do see is handled well. The brutality of the Masks school makes sense to me, and having elite classmates fight to the death is not something that is unprecedented in other books (the aforementioned Red Rising series, or The Testing series by Joelle Charbonneau, for example) or in history (see Spartan training of soliders once they reach Ephebe status, or, say, the entire Gladiator tradition of Rome, or Mayan training and sporting events that end with the finest warriors paying the ultimate price for defeat). So I have no problem or question of that internal logic. I do think the explanation of female characters in the Masks ranks felt a little glossed over and I yearned to read more about Elias’s cruel mother and her deal with the darkness. We get a scene near the end of the book, and I dearly wish to understand the Commandant and her own motivations better.
More importantly, from a worldbuilding perspective, I actually was impressed by the subtly building threads of a greater darkness, of something inherently wrong with the Martial Empire, its Augurs, its laws. Something has gone wrong in this universe, and Veturius and Laia’s worlds are out of balance. This much is clear – although by the end of this first book we’re not really sure what has gone wrong and what the larger picture is. I like that slow endgame, that sinking sense of wrongness. I appreciate the slow buildup very much. (And if this isn’t book 1 in a series, I’ll eat my words and take back everything because there is NO RESOLUTION and if it’s never addressed again, that would be incredibly irritating.) I enjoyed the glimpses of the tribes outside of the Martial walls, and the division between the conquered Scholars, slaves, and the ruling military class. I hope for more of the tribes in the next novel.
Now, for the bad – because for all the things that did work in this novel, there were several things that did not. Ana has already talked about the threat of gendered violence and the frustrations and problems therein; on that front, I completely agree.
I also agree that the incessant need to build up romantic tension in the form of an insidious love quandrangle is So. Fucking. Annoying. There are countless scenes of near kisses, of hearts fluttering at the smell of his cloak, the desire smoldering in her eyes, the curve of her elegant neck, and just kill me now. I have no problem with gratuitous violence (or sex) in fiction, but it does strike me as incredibly odd to have no qualms with mass murder or beatings or threats of rape, but such reservations when it comes to any kind of sexual attraction. (Gods forbid that two of these characters kiss, because YA love geometry is all about the longing looks and unfulfilled chaste desires, amirite?)
Other irritations: a lack of character development for the “bad” guys of the piece (Marcus the Snake, in particular), not enough time spent understanding the resistance effort or the existing Emperor and the ire towards him, a lack of answers overall.
But, like I said before, this is definitely book 1 of an ongoing cash cow series that will be milked, so perhaps answers are coming.
So in conclusion, where does that leave me and my experience with this book?
Well… I guess I liked it. More than I care to admit to my rational brain.
I devoured An Ember in the Ashes, I was entertained by it, and I’ll be around for the next book.
And that’s all I have to say about that.
Ana: 4 – Bad but not without SOME merit
Thea: 6 – Recommended with Reservations but verging on a 7, if I’m being honest with my emotions.
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