& Review: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. Science Fiction/Fantasy. Publisher: Razorbill February 2016

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. Science Fiction/Fantasy. Publisher: Razorbill February 2016

The Book Itself: I’m a little unclear what the background image is supposed to be, but the title is certainly dramatic and cool-looking. I don’t know if this cover would make me leap for this book on the shelf, but the font works well.

My Review: 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 shied away from this book at first because it sounded like a lot of books already out there – controlling society, high born vs. low born, society based on Greek/Roman traditions, family member endangered, young woman thrust into a situation she isn’t ready for, but triumphs regardless, etc. It’s the Hunger Games/Divergent/Countless other dystopian and fantasy series come before. I know the plot pattern. I even like the plot pattern. But some books do it better than others, and sometimes you just need to read something different.

And then the praise for this book started gathering speed. And the fans started to profess their lurve for it all over the place. So I caved and started reading.

And I’m pretty glad I did. It’s not that it’s without pitfalls – there’s a love rhombus/square for crying out loud – but overall the book has solid primary as well as secondary characters and very well-written conflict and action scenes.

Let’s get the romance thing out of the way: Laia and Elias have secondary love interests besides each other. For Laia, it’s a fellow spy named Keenan – a jerk who is “just trying to protect her” (yes, I rolled my eyes too). For Elias, it’s his best friend/battlemate Helene. This relationship is far more compelling. They’re friends, they’re pitted against each other, and their relationship is put to the hardest test of all in some of the final chapters in the book – a battle that truly affected me as a reader.

But not only do we have to set up the relationship between Laia and Elias (which ends up being that boring and ridiculous “insta-love” so overused in YA books), now we have to see the set-up of relationships between Laia and Keenan. And Elias and Helene. And even how Laia and Helene and Elias and Kennan interact. Ugh. I think the love rhombus (which is so much more interesting than a love square, don’t you think?) detracts from the main story. Although I’m torn about that, because Helene is pretty kickass and I like the conflict between her and Elias. Maybe I’m just a Keenan-hater. Sorry I’m not sorry.

And now for the world: this is a brutal book. There is no holding back. If you’ve read other reviews of this story, you know it features rape…rather prominently. Laia is constantly described as beautiful/attractive/a special snowflake in terms of looks. As a pretty slave she attracts attention. Of the bad intentions kind. I agree with both sides of the coin here: it is very in-your-face. It’s mentioned quite often for the amount of screen time Laia has. And it doesn’t help make Laia a strong feminist character, always associated with rape, physical beauty, and helplessness. But it makes sense in terms of the society: a caste system where slaves, both male and female, are property, to do with what soldiers will. Rape happened in ancient Rome and Greece. So it’s happening here.

And the brutality doesn’t end there. There is a lot of blood and guts in this story. A lot of betrayal, a lot of evil in the well-constructed villain that is the Commandant (and also Elias’ mother – MAMA ISSUES!) It’s a lot of brutality for YA, but the writing style and character development place this book pretty squarely in that genre.

I thought the action scenes were really well done, but unbalanced in terms of narration. We would go from a tense scene mid-battle for Elias amidst the Trials…and then cut away to Laia, talking to the cook in the kitchen. I would at times find Elias’ story and arc so much more compelling than Laia’s, that I wished the book were more about him. I think he’s a better constructed character overall, and he really got the bulk of the story.

Overall, I liked the story, I liked the characters. I wasn’t sold on the romance, and Laia still kind of annoys me. But I’ll pick up the next installment to see where it goes from here.

My Review: B


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