“I look up at the stars hanging low in a sky that makes me think I’m seeing the infinite. But beneath their cold gaze, I feel small. All the beauty of the stars means nothing when life here on earth is so ugly.”
What It’s About
An Ember in the Ashes is the first book in a young adult fantasy trilogy which is inspired by Ancient Rome. The Empire is ruled by the Martials, and there are several other groups of people, including the Scholars, the lowest and most ill-treated among them.
“The Martials conquered Scholar lands five hundred years ago, and since then, they’ve done nothing but oppress and enslave us. Once, the Scholar Empire was home to the finest universities and libraries in the world. Now, most of our people can’t tell a school from an armory.”
The book is told from the point-of-views of Laia, a teenage Scholar girl, and Elias, a student at Blackcliff Academy, where he’s training to be a Mask, which is an elite faction of the Empire’s military. They both reside in the city of Serra, a landscape of harshness and desert.
Laia is meek and terrified of the Empire. Both of her parents, as well as her older sister, were captured, tortured, and murdered by the Empire, and she and her brother Darin now reside with their grandparents. One night Darin sneaks in through the window with a sketchbook full of drawings and information that a Scholar should not be caught with. Not far behind him is a Martial raid. Laia’s grandparents are killed right in front of her, and her brother is taken prisoner. Laia flees for her life, her mind a swirl of conflicting fear and bravery. There has been an underground Scholar resistance since the war that put the Martials in power, and Laia seeks out their help, eventually agreeing to become a spy for them in exchange for their promise of breaking her brother out of the Martial’s prison.
“Life is made of so many moments that mean nothing. Then one day, a single moment comes along to define every second that comes after. The moment Darin called out – that was such a moment. It was a test of courage, of strength. And I failed it.”
Elias is in the final year of his training to be a Mask at Blackcliff Academy, and he’s dreaming of the day he can finally be free of the tyrannous lifestyle that was forced upon him when he was just six years old. He feels alone in his opinion that the Empire is too brutal and ruthless, as his classmates take pleasure in raping and murdering. His partner and best friend, Helene, is unaware of the secret plans he’s been working on; the backpack stashed in the catacombs, the secret tunnel, and the map marking a path through dilapidated passages beneath the city.
The paths of Laia and Elias start to cross and intertwine, and they find themselves drawn toward one another as they both work toward their own goals of subverting the Empire.
I loved this book! I hungrily consumed every page of it, staying up late into the night because I absolutely had to know what happened next. I’m so thrilled that I finally got around to reading it after hearing about it everywhere.
Both the of the main characters, Laia and Elias, were well-rounded and felt so real that I was drawn down deep into the story. From the moment they first met, I wanted them to get together as a romantic couple, to the point where I spent a car-ride ranting to my boyfriend about how mad I’d be if either of them ended up with anyone but each other.
As Elias is forced to commit atrocious acts or risk being punished for treason, Sabaa Tahir’s writing is so powerful that you feel the pain with him.
“I stare into the faces of the men I kill, and though the storm muffles the groans, every death carves its way into my memory, each one a wound that will never heal.”
Laia also feels incredibly realistic. She’s frightened but moves forward out of a desire to do right by her people, her murdered family, and her brother. We watch her falter and pick herself back up over and over again. It’s so great watching her grow from a meek, shy girl terrified of getting into trouble into someone who bravely fights against the Empire at any cost necessary.
Even the side characters have unique and very distinct personalities. Izzi, Cook, even the Commandant, feel as though they could be real people, and I love books that have that quality to them because they make you feel as though you’re living the story.
One of the side characters that I did not like, although I feel like the author intended for you to like him, is Keenan, a member of the resistance. His flirting with Laia feels almost predatory and somewhat creepy, and I found myself wishing for Laia to get away from him quickly any time they shared a scene.
Another aspect I enjoyed is that the magic of the world is on the fringes. We know as little about the magic system and magical creatures as the characters do, and that was really exciting to me.
As much as I adored this book, there were some things that I wished had been explored more, such as history and world-building. From the beginning, I wanted to know more about the Scholars. Same with the Tribes, who reside outside of the city of Serra. I also wanted to know so, so much more about the world at large. The map on the inside cover of the book is vast, and I want to know more about those cities that inhabit the corners of the map. That said, I can’t remember the last time I read a fantasy book that took place in a desert environment, so it was really nice to see that setting.
I’m about to start the second book in the series, A Torch Against the Night, and I cannot wait. I’m hoping to get a larger taste of the Empire. Each book has a map on the inside cover, and An Ember in the Ashes explores a very small part of that map. I’m also hoping for more of the characters I found myself liking, such as Izzi, Teluman, and even Helene (whose character I enjoy even if I’m conflicted about actually liking her).
5 out of 5 stars. This book was amazing, and I cannot wait to read the next two, which I have already picked up from the library.
Have you read An Ember in the Ashes? If so, share your thoughts below.