An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
Published: April 2015 by Harper Voyager
Genre: Fantasy, Romance
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2
An Ember in the Ashes was a book club read and one I’d heard a lot of hype about as the next big fantasy series. The book couldn’t have come at a better time though because I was in the mourning period whilst waiting for the next installment in the Throne of Glass series, and I was hoping An Ember in the Ashes would fill that void perfectly.
Elias is a warrior trained at the most fearsome military academy in the Martial Empire. Laia is a slave, robbed of her freedom and her family. But their dreams and destinies are more alike than either could have imagined. When Laia’s brother is arrested for treason against the tyrannical Empire, she sets off an extraordinary quest to free him. Forced to sacrifice her own freedom and turn spy for the rebels, she meets the academy’s most promising student, who harbours his own rebellious thoughts against the Empire that he’s been brought up to serve. Together they realise they are both destined to play a part in a bigger game that could threaten the future of the Martial Empire itself.
I loved An Ember in the Ashes – that is basically the bottom line. However, having read it for a book club (always dangerous, prepare to either tear the book apart like an angry mob or pledge undying allegiance to it!!) I got to see how other book clubbers responded to it which is always interesting. The actual set up of the book was brilliant, it had all the classic elements of an epic fantasy – power struggles, prophecies, political maneuvering, and enough drama to keep me hooked. Whilst a rebel faction isn’t anything new in a YA fantasy, I did like how their objectives and their ethics were ambivalent, and the same goes for many of the characters too. Tahir was also cruel enough to sprinkle many clues about how the rest of the series will play out and what our protagonists have to look forward to, that I was practically eating out of her hand trying to join up the dots and guess.
I also found myself vested in the characters, their individual story arcs, and their interactions with each other. I cared about both the heroine and the supposed villain and shipped them most ardently 😉 I really liked how Laia was motivated not by some heroine complex but by her love for her brother. It was refreshing to see her not suddenly turn into a warrior princess and military strategist overnight just because she was a Protagonist on a Quest and associated with the rebel camp. Even though there were points where her naiveté led to some facepalm moments, overall it made her character more realistic. Elias was also interesting in that he was a defector even though he was one of the best Martial soldiers and as high up the social pecking order as you could get. It was intriguing to see his internal conflict around morality which is actually a major part of the book.
However, there are definitely elements of the book that even I can concede could have been handled a little better and may irritate some readers. First of all, some of the love triangles were unnecessary and quite a few of my fellow book clubbers heartily agreed. I admit I was a little disappointed that Elias and Helene couldn’t just have a platonic relationship. I thought their shared childhood growing up under very difficult circumstances is more than enough justification for her to care deeply about him. There were also some elements of instalove, and risking of lives based on fleeting acquaintances (par for the course really).
Another niggle was with Tahir telling us multiple times that the Commander was the Big Bad and the students of Blackcliff were the most loyal and sadistic of the Martial Empire’s servants. Sometimes this wasn’t totally convincing. Sure, the Commander did punish Laia once severely but she didn’t follow through on lots of her threats – the facial mutilation that never was seemed to be a classic cop out by the author to keep the protagonist attractive and perfect. Also, most of the students seemed to spend most of their time angsting after each other and playing out their love triangles/rhombus/freaking polygons rather than being the brutal soldiers and assassins they were supposed to be. Now I’m not asking for more sadistic elements for the sake of it but it just seemed like Tahir told rather than showed this particular aspect of her world building.
An Ember in the Ashes is one of the rare occasions where my rating could be called slightly irrational – I’m totally aware of some of the glaring issues with the book but I nonetheless adored it overall and it was pretty near perfect for me. The goods definitely outweighed the not-so-greats for me and the series is now up there with my other favourite fantasy series such as the Throne of Glass and the Lunar Chronicles series.