An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir (An Ember in the Ashes #1) / My rating:★★★★☆
One sentence summary: Laia enters slavery as a spy in order to save her brother Darin, who is taken by the Martial Empire, while Elias is a soldier who desires freedom, but is chosen to enter The Trials to become emperor of the Martial Empire.
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.
Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy
Plot: This book is SOLID, and is a great start to a four-book series. It has a very steady, very full plot that is packed with action, but takes its time building its world and its characters. Ancient Rome provides the base of inspiration for the gruesome, violent society of An Ember in the Ashes, and I found it to be a unique, interesting place that the author really authenticated and made her own.
Right from the first chapter Laia’s brother is taken by the Martial Empire, and she wastes no time in trying to get him back by agreeing to spy on the Commandant, the leader of the Empire’s school, Blackliff, by becoming her slave. Meanwhile, the Commandant’s son, Elias, is the top soldier at Blackliff – but he longs for freedom from the Empire and plans to dessert- until he’s called to take part in The Trials to compete for the role of Emperor of the Empire. An Ember in the Ashes told a story that felt dangerous and it had a fantastic sense of tension throughout. It does amazing things with moral conflict and the power in destiny and of choice.
If there is one thing in the plot that I must criticize, it’s the romance. This book holds not one, but two love triangles, both of them interwoven with each other. Now, I am not a fan of love triangles in general, but I think what mostly bothered me about the love triangles in this book is that they seemed to rely very heavily on attraction. Which, yeah, okay, but it made it hard for me to put my heart into any of the relationships when I wasn’t sure how deeply the characters actually felt for one another. The romance simply progressed too quickly for my taste, and often things would become romantic when I wish they wouldn’t; when it felt like it would have been a good chance to develop companionship instead, or companionship without leading to a kiss or an inner-monologue on how attracted they are to them. It particularly frustrated me when a character is on the cusp of mortal danger, when they are literally dying, but the touch of broad arms or tantalizing curves suddenly befuddles them with jolts of desire and confusion. It tired me how all of the main characters of opposite sexes couldn’t seem to develop relationships without becoming attracted to one another. Do NOT get me started on the fact that there was the line “she was beautiful but she didn’t know it” in there. Meh. Most of all, it made me long for at least one good, strictly platonic friendship between two characters of the opposite sex.
(This paragraph contains spoilers) Most of my frustration with the love triangles stems from Laia’s, rather than Elias’s, though, at the beginning of the book, he made it very clear that he Was Not Attracted to Helen, but then like .5 seconds later he was?? However, my heart bled for Helene’s love for Elias. Helene bore no passing fancy and that I could get behind. It was just too conveniently inconvenient that Elias seemed to suddenly begin to grapple with his feelings for her and then meet Laia so soon after. As for Laia- these boys just cared for her so quickly. Keenan? He knew Laia for five seconds and went from “get her away” to Mr. “You’re the first person I’ve cared about in forever.” I was very EHH about their final kiss at the end. I’m also rather “eh” about Laia’s romance with Elias. Their kiss in his room felt too soon, and I know they talked and bonded right before it, but I would have preferred to let the friendship and trust grow more. I liked that their similarities in spirit made them a good pair and good companions, but felt like they’d hopped right into the romance and it made me feel little toward it. A kiss means more to me with more friendship, ya know?
While I wasn’t a huge fan of the romance, I will hold out from judging the entire series’ romance from this first book. I hope the next books will develop the relationships and romance between the characters more fully so that I may be able to feel more emotion toward them. But aside from my issues with the romantic relationships, this book was awesome, and I really enjoyed it.
Characters: I immediately found Elias to be a very likable character, and I loved his moral conflict with the Martial Empire, and the conflict it lead to with his best friend, Helene. Whereas Elias can’t bring himself to agree with the gruesome ways of the Empire, Helene follows them without question. And yet Helene, I think, claimed my heart the most out of anyone. I admired her steadfast loyalty, even when it broke her heart (especially when it broke her heart).
Laia, on the other hand, I found grated on me at times. She was constantly reflecting on the guilt she felt at the loss of her brother, which I understand, but reading it over and over got a bit tiring. However, Laia bugged me like a character in the first stage of development is supposed to. She was constantly getting herself into situations that could have been avoided. She never trusted the right people. She was supposed to be clever, yet it took time for her to prove that cleverness to me. She went through great development in this book alone, and I look forward to her development over the next three books. I have a feeling that by the end of the series, she is going to have come SO far, even if it will probably frustrate me in the process of getting there. Laia is a very human character.
Other characters I feel worth mentioning: Laia’s fellow slaves, Izzi and the Cook- loved them. Izzi was so sweet and Cook was smart and strong (I kept yelling at Laia to just LISTEN TO HER). While I wasn’t a fan of Keenan’s romance, I did like him as a character, perhaps because I like the broody type. Also, the Commandant, Elias’ mother. EEK. She makes Umbridge seem tame.
Writing: It was good, but not really my taste, which is to say, it was told in a rather dramatic first person narration (I don’t know why I love dramatic third person, but dramatic first person grates on me. More sentences seem to start with the word “and” in first person. Ex. “It was a test of courage, of strength. And I failed it.” I’m all about breaking the rules of grammar in fiction but the dramatic pause before “and” bugs me.). Still, it is good writing, and it’s a style that suits the story and tells it well. What I did love abut the structure was how each chapter alternates between Laia and Elias’ points of view. A chapter would end on a cliffhanger and I’d be forced to move on to the next chapter, which would bring me to the other half of the story, and that chapter would end on a completely different cliffhanger. I loved the tension it created, and it kept me going for just one more chapter every time.
Was I satisfied? This book gave me a very solid 4 star satisfaction rating, which is to say it was great except for the romance. It’s a fantastic start to a series and left much room for expansion plot-wise and character-wise, and I’ll definitely be reading the next book in the series, A Torch Against the Night.