I received this book for free from American Book Center in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!! This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
Series: An Ember in the Ashes #1
Published by Razorbill on April 28th, 2015
Genres: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Young Adult
Source: American Book Center
I WILL TELL YOU THE SAME THING I TELL EVERY SLAVE.
THE RESISTANCE HAS TRIED TO PENETRATE THIS SCHOOL COUNTLESS TIMES. I HAVE DISCOVERED IT EVERY TIME.
IF YOU ARE WORKING WITH THE RESISTANCE, IF YOU CONTACT THEM, IF YOU THINK OF CONTACTING THEM, I WILL KNOW
AND I WILL DESTROY YOU.
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.
An Ember in the Ashes is easily one of the most hyped up 2015 debuts / releases overall. Ever since it was announced, people have been clamoring for the book – excited by this “Gladiator style” high stakes middle eastern-inspired fantasy. So, obviously, this book had a lot to live up to. Fellow bloggers who read this before me have been excitedly shouting about its perfection. Unfortunately, it didn’t really work for me.
An Ember in the Ashes tells a fantasy story from two points of view: Laia and Elias. Laia is a Scholar – a native resident of the area which has been conquered by the Martial Empire. The story starts off when in the middle of the night, her brother is taken on suspicion of being a part of the rebellion – and her grandparents are killed. She turns to the rebellion herself, promising to become a spy for them masquerading as a slave if they’ll help her save her brother. Elias is a Mask – a warrior of the Martial Empire. However, he was raised by the tribes and hates his heritage, planning to desert the army until he lands in a competition to become the next emperor. Four trials stand in his way between him and a destiny he isn’t sure he would want anyway.
Now, here’s the thing: this book falls short in every way imaginable to me – writing, world building, characterization, romance, and plot. It’s never really aggravatingly bad, but it’s just average and underwhelming, so the fact that I’ve seen this book being heralded as “the next J.K. Rowling” is extremely frustrating to me.
First up: writing and world building. These kind of fall together because what I was lacking all throughout the book is a real engrossing setting and atmosphere. There wasn’t really enough description, so it was really hard to picture things in my mind. Like, at a certain point Elias is riding in a “carriage” and later he says his grandfather “drove off”. The only descriptor we get is that it’s ebony. But is it a horse-drawn carriage? Or something else? A car? I don’t know things. Like, the Masks have silver masks that morph with their faces.. but how does that work? Is it the full face or just the eyes? Do they have silver lips? Elias pulls his off at the neck, so… wut? The setting also confused me. It’s clearly inspired by the middle east – which is supported by the existence of such mythological creatures as jinn, efrit, wraiths, etc. These creatures themselves are kind of cool, though usually their descriptors are glossed over as well – for many I was just picture masses of shadows and stuff, not really inspiring. But, for the middle east, it seems like there are hardly any POC characters. The majority are described as having white blond hair, silver hair, red hair, and I was just confused out my mind. I was trying to rationalize it, if the Martial Empire was like a European-esque nation that invaded a middle eastern-esque nation, but that wasn’t consistent when one of the rebels(!!) has red hair. I was baffled. For what I thought would be a beautifully diverse high fantasy, this definitely failed.
Second: characters. They bored me. I’m a big character reader, and I definitely think that if you’re more of a plot reader, you won’t have as much of an issue as I did, but these characters were so boring. They just don’t have personalities that really spark, you know? A lot of the time, it felt like they were just letting things happen to them, letting the plot carry them along, so I didn’t feel a strong connection. And it ties into the next point…
The romance. Or, “WTF WHY SO MUCH CHEMISTRY-LESS ROMANCE?” Let’s be upfront about this: there are not one but TWO love triangles in this book. Laia and Elias obviously have to get tangled up in each other because they’re the two main characters. Laia also has a little thing going on with a rebel boy though, and Elias quickly comes to realize that his best friend Helene has feelings for him. But every. side. is so devoid of passion and chemistry. And I would say that’s a LOT of romance for a book that’s so heavy and dark – with slavery, war, rebellion, a Gladiator-type competition, etc. Now, romance isn’t the focus, but that really only makes it worse because it keeps being thrown into the equation without any real development. The characters are also so bland that I can’t imagine why they would be so drawn to each other when they have so many other important things going on. “It must be a purely physical thing,” says my brain, desperately trying to rationalize it.
Actually, I did have a passing admiration for Helene, who is a Mask also – the only female in her year. She was so bad ass and strong, but then they threw in this romance, and she got all jealous and became all petty…. and then she was kind of written off. So… way to go. Seriously.
Finally: plot. The plot was undeniably the strongest aspect of the novel. When I started reading, it was incredibly easy to just immerse myself and read 100 pages in one sitting. That’s kind of a big deal for me. But, on the other hand, when I put it down, I often waited three days or so to pick it back up because I just didn’t feel connected to the characters. The book is split into a number of parts, and the first is admittedly a bit slow, but by part two the Trials started, and it was action-packed and quite entertaining. And Laia’s spying storyline has enough twists and turns to keep people entertained as well – though I saw through some of those elements.
However, the ending was again incredibly disappointing. It left so much unresolved, and that just pissed me off (especially considering the length of this monster). As I’m typing, this book is still a standalone in the sense that a sequel has not yet been contracted. But please believe me when I say that this is the start of a series, no doubt about it. First off: View Spoiler »Laia’s brother is still in jail « Hide Spoiler. Then there’s just the fact that this world is still in peril – the oppression isn’t resolved at all. The background for that is also still left in the dark. There was one infodumpy chapter where some myth was revealed about a mythological creature that is pulling the strings, but then we never saw that character again! This is not a standalone at all – so keep that in mind. You may want to wait until it’s sure a sequel is coming (which I’m 90% sure will happen, because hype) before you pick this up.