Review | An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

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“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.”

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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.

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Ah, An Ember in the Ashes.
It’s just a small story really, about, among other things:

-A slave

-The Martial Empire

-A soldier

-Augurs

-Trials

-And quite a lot of scourging

(kudos if you know what I’m referencing!)

I hadn’t read a young adult novel as unique and captivating as An Ember in the Ashes in a really long time. It’s emotional, violent, frightening, and above all else, enticing. I needed to know how everything was going to play out. I wasn’t able to sleep at night as all these scenarios danced through my mind. I felt invested in the cruel world Tahir created, and genuinely afraid for Laia and Elias. This is one of those books where if your favorite character dies, you feel like you need to attend their funeral.

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The story is told from two perspectives. Laia is one of the Scholars – a once prospering civilization of intellectuals that has been conquered and enslaved by the Martial Empire for half a millennia. After her grandparents are murdered and brother, Darin arrested, she finds the Scholar Resistance and seeks their aid in rescuing Darin. In exchange for their help, Laia must masquerade as a slave and spy for them from within Blackcliff Military Academy. Elias is the top soldier at Blackcliff and son of the Commandant, but covertly wishes to be freed from the brutal empire he is being trained to impose.

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“You are an ember in the ashes, Elias Veturius. You will spark and burn, ravage and destroy. You cannot change it. You cannot stop it.”

Elias.

I love him. Love him. He’s right up there with Finnick Odair and Thorne. He is so complex. He never knew his father, his mother hates him, he was raised by Tribesmen until he was six, and then his life was stolen from him when he was chosen to attend Blackcliff. Happy childhood. I love his constant regret over every death by his hand, his conflicting feelings towards Helene, and just about everything about him.

Laia.

“All the beauty of the stars means nothing when life here on earth is so ugly.”

What I found to be a nice breadth of fresh air was that Laia wasn’t the typical kick-butt audacious heroine. For most of the novel she is a scared, cowardly, little girl who would rather run than fight. But, despite all that, she is still willing to risk everything to save her brother. I’m not going to lie, she did annoy me more than once (way more than once), but it was a nice change from the cliched Katniss Everdeen – type heroine.

 Helene. 

“Loving you is the worst thing that has ever happened to me…It’s torture, Elias.”

So, I’m going to sound pretty hypocritical here, by saying that I thought Helene was awesome. She is a typical feministic, kick-butt heroine, but did I have a problem with that? Nope. Because she isn’t ordinary. Her conflicting loyalties were arguably one of my favorite aspects of this book, and her feelings for Elias were really heart-breaking.

The Commandant. 

Dang, never thought I’d meet a woman so evil, that hell itself, spat her back out. She’s terrifying! That scene in the beginning where she whips the kid to death is horrifying! I hate her so much, and I wish there were more villains like her. I really wanted to kill her for the wait she’s treated Elias all her life.

Marcus & Zak.

Marcus, just…

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To be perfectly honest, I liked Zak a lot. I felt so bad for the little stooge.

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Surprisingly, the love square(???) didn’t bother me nearly as much as I initially thought it would. I’m personally not much of a fan of love triangles, they’re too cliched and are typically an idiotic contest that occupies the protagonist’s mind way more than it should, between hot love interest #1 and hotter love interest #2. I liked both Laia and Helene, and was honestly fine with either of them ending up with Elias. Keenan was just an underdeveloped pawn used to give Laia conflicted romantic feelings. But since he had hardly any screen-time, I don’t necessarily count him as part of the love square.

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The Martial Empire is a remarkably intricate and terrifying world. So many young adult novels these days are simplistic and unrealistic. Tahir constructed a world that was not only relatable, but felt real. She even drew a map of The Empire and Blackcliff for crying out loud! The only other young adult novel to give me chills from the setting alone was Unwind. The threats of scourging, raping, and imprisonment scared the hell out of me and left that feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. I also really enjoyed Tahir’s terse amount of fantasy in the book.

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Just about everything. Haha. I don’t really feel the need to repeat all of it. The characters, writing, world building, concept, everything! Well, all but…

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Rape. Rape, rape, rape, and rape. I liked, no loved, nearly everything about this book except the constant reminder of raping. I understand that it was a threat for Helene and especially Laia, but I don’t need to be reminded about it every 2 pages. There was nothing graphic, but the perpetual threats and conversations regarding it, became rather irritating and pointless. Apparently, it’s a crime to be beautiful, and if you’re not beautiful, congratulations! You’re safe from all the corrupted perverts out there!

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In conclusion, I adore, worship, live and breathe this book, (okay, not really) and will forcefully strap you down in a chair if you refuse to read this work of art. And also, it is confirmed that there will be a sequel…do you understand what this means!?

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