ARC Review: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir


title:  An Ember in the Ashes

author:  Sabaa Tahir

pages: 464

format: Paperback ARC

isbn/asin: 978-1595148032

buy it: Amazon  Goodreads  B&N

rating: 3.5/5 [in the genre] or 7/10 [all books I’ve ever read].

recommended for:  Fans of Tamora Pierce, Sarah J. Maas, and Exquisite Captive by Heather Demetrios.  

will i read this author again?:  Probably.  
will i continue the series?:  I guess?  If she decided to write one?  Sort of N/A but not sure?  

My Ratings Explained

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.

the basics
Ember and I have a love-hate relationship.  First, take the book entirely ignoring the romance.  It's a beautifully written tale of suspense and intrigue heavily inspired by Arabic culture.  Welcome to the empire, where the native Scholar people are subjugated under ruthless Martial rule.  Laia is a Scholar.  When her family is murdered in front of her and her brother is captured, she turns to the Scholar resistance to help free him.  Their price: Laia must spy for the dangerous, vicious leader of the Martial school.  Elias happens to be that woman's son.  He's a brilliant warrior, but all he desires is desertion.  However, he finds himself trapped in a contest to become the next emperor.  The plot is engaging and twisty, with breath-holding near misses, moments of true horror, and deep friendships.  And then there's the romance.  I loved the attraction between Elias and Helene, and between Laia and Keenan.  What I got instead was two wishy-washy love triangles that felt completely contrived and rife with insta-love.  The ending is also quite cruel for a standalone.  That said, the romance aside, Ember is a thrilling, cinematic book that is sure to be a 2015 favorite.  

plot . 3/5
If you average the romance with the rest of the book, it comes out to about a three.  The positive are, thankfully, many.  Ember is an engaging game of cat-and-mouse in which Laia and Elias are a hair's breadth from death at any time.  Laia navigates between the Resistance, her servant friends, and the vicious Commandant.  She must find information for the Resistance so that they'll free her brother.  Elias must contend with the Trials while also hiding his wishes to desert, dealing with the mysterious Augurs, and finding a balance between compassion and self-endangerment.  There are many nighttime escapades, battles, and tests.  The Trials themselves are a little shorter than I'd have liked, but they're certainly interesting.  There's also a lot of girl power.  Trigger warning: rape is a very real part of this society.  Whether Tahir's use is realistic or gratuitous is a discussion for another post.  Then there are the less good pieces. There are elements of the story that are too circumscribed.  There's a whole magical, evil thing going on that's not at all wrapped up.  Fine for a series; not so great for a standalone.          

Seriously, though, you're not going to freaking do anything with the Nightbringer and the whole reason Laia goes underground in the first place!?   

concept . 4/5
I'm getting a bit sick of the Rome-a-likes.  It can be done very well (see Red Rising or The Winner's Curse), but it feels slapped together here.  Yes, we have the big bad empire full of people with blatantly Latin names and a blatantly Latin culture.  On the positive side, Tahir unflinchingly delves into the grit and horror of the empire, a facet that's often softened, especially in young adult fiction.  It makes for a slave-master story that really cuts.  The idea of the Trials, dangerous magical and physical games, is pretty fascinating, and fits into a fascinating broader story about the empire and its relationship with magic.  On the negative side, who in the world names their people Scholars, Martials, Mariners, and Tribesmen?  Seriously?  These people only had one basic occupation and called themselves by that occupation in some common language?  Making up names is not that hard.       

characters . 4/5
Again, I loved the characters until the stupid love triangle things started.  When they were separate, they were great.  Laia is initially cowardly and weak; she grows over the course of the story, becoming more driven, showing her cleverness.  She's also a little ruthless in service of her goal, which made me like her more.  Elias is initially admirable, compassionate and obviously loved by his friends.  But he uses Helene; for a best friend, he gives her no benefit of the doubt.  This particularly irked me, because Helene was my favorite character.  She's powerful, capable, and self-assured.  She can hold her own in the ring or in a game of wits.  She's fiercely loyal.  She also has some uncomfortably antiquated beliefs, but you can see them being changed and challenged as the story goes on.  The Commandant is another lovely character: ruthless, sadistic, but believably so.  Some of Elias' friends blended together too much, but Laia's friend Izzi is delightfully sweet and brave.  

style . 4/5
There were a few strange phrasings, I will say.  It's odd to hear "You don't get it" or "Man up" from the mouths of people in a somewhat pre-medieval empire.  Tahir could have formed her own colloquialisms to give the feel of slang without seeming too modern.  That said, her prose is quite solid and frequently poetic.  There's a lyrical quality to her writing that gives Ember the feel of an old heroic epic, like the thousand nights.  Plot annoyances aside, the woman can truly write.  

Dawn is still a blue rumor on the horizon when I limp into the commandant's chambers.  

mechanics . 2/5
There's the romance.  It can be largely summed up by something told to Laia: "Your heart wants Keenan, and yet your body is alight when Elias Veturius is near."  Spoiler to no one: lust wins.  For Elias it's similar, except Tahir is a little heavy-handed in trying to make Helene unsuitable.  As Elias admits of Helene, "I'd underestimated her more than anyone."  But he doesn't give her a chance to grow or to explain, and he doesn't seem to feel guilty about having abandoned her.  Which makes him rather unlikable, and Laia unlikable by association--since she, also, is rather tactless in dismissing her unwanted beau.  One love triangle is enough; two is disaster.  I often felt like I was being tricked, prodded.  "Like Laia!  Dislike Helene!"  As though Tahir was turning Helene and Keenan into straw people so as to sweep them more easily aside.  Then Laia and Elias have about one interaction and are wholly smitten with one another; oh yeah, and all of the sudden their feelings for the others are totally gone because reasons.  ...Right.   Sadly, it felt like it was trying to do something that The Winner's Curse did far better.

Also, really?  The vicious Commandant spares Laia's face?  Obviously we couldn't like Laia if she weren't pretty.  

take home message
If you can set aside the contrived romance and cumbersome love triangles, An Ember in the Ashes is an exciting, suspenseful epic with a Middle Eastern flavor.   

Note: I received this copy in exchange for a review.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.  

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