Author: Sabaa Tahir
Rating: 4/5 (or an A-, because out-of-5 ratings are never fully accurate with me.)
So this is the first book review I’m attempting on this blog. Hooray! This was probably at the top of the list of books I wanted to read this year (mentioned in my 2017 TBR post) and I finally did it! After two years of saying that I would read this book I finally read it! I even took a few notes to prepare for this review as I was reading, so let’s hope this goes well.
If you don’t know, because you somehow are not aware of the hype comparative to a tsunami surrounding this book for the past two years, An Ember in the Ashes is a fantasy book set in a world loosely based on Ancient Rome. We follow two protagonists: Laia, a slave working as a spy for the resistance, and Elias, the top student in the empire’s military academy. Neither feel free in the life that they are given. That’s basically all I knew going into this book, and I honestly think that this is one of those books that is better when you go into it with an air of mystery. Well, in any case, so much happens that I’m not sure I could sum up this book with more than that.
I loved this book, you guys. I went into it expecting one thing and then very quickly realized that Tahir seemed to make it her job to keep the reader on their toes every second of the way. A lot of books start with a bit of groundwork; setting the world, getting to know the protagonist a bit, throw in a plot twist in a chapter or two. You get none of that in An Ember in the Ashes; it hits the ground running, hoping that you will catch up soon enough, and I loved that. There’s no “Oh, I hope this will be interesting.” It’s, “Oh, crap, what is happening? I have to keep reading to find out now!”
I am by nature a very slow reader, which for me means that I also am hyper aware of how quickly I’m blowing through a book, but then loose track after about a week. I think this book took me about two to two and a half weeks to read? I don’t know, but about the first half was blown through in a few days. One of Tahir’s strengths I think is pacing. She really knows how to build suspense in a way that doesn’t make things feel like they’re being dragged out.
As can be implied, the rest below the line contains spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book and wish not to be, I would click away 🙂
Through reading this I couldn’t help but pay attention to all the details that reminded me of what I know of Ancient Rome. I mostly consider myself knowledgeable in the mythology, but even things like the importance of honor and loyalty and how certain families were ranked higher than others for their service to the empire; those things are what make this world connect to what we know of Ancient Rome, not just the buildings and the clothing style, and I like how well Tahir executed that. I got major Percy Jackson vibes from this book. It’s like the grown up version of the PJO books, with like 100 times more darkness.
The characters are so complex, realistic, and well fleshed out. Their arcs are prevalent and noticeable, but at the end of the book still leave room for more growth in the sequel. The personalities are diverse and emulate real human thoughts. I absolutely love the way Elias and Laia contrast one another. Their paths are so different, and though they learn similar lessons – courage, endurance, taking charge of one’s own life – they go about learning them in very different ways that fit their individual personalities.
I would say that the characters might be the weakest part of the book, but with Tahir’s amazing talent it’s more like the least strong part. I could have expected just a bit more from them, like an centimeter more, but there’s also a sequel so I’ll have time to get to know them better. I loved little things about their arcs that really made the main characters stand out. Like that Laia doesn’t instantly stand up and fight when her brother is captured; she has to learn to be brave. And that Elias hated the empire from the beginning, but wasn’t interested in revolting until the end, when he had finally found something worth more than just self preservation: the preservation of his soul. I liked Izzi, whom I hope we’ll hear more from (I can just picture her as this really awesome one-eyed fighter).
Also, what’s up with the Comandant? Never in recent books has a villain chilled me more than her. Her reasoning behind why she hates Elias is just so…I don’t even have the words for how repulsed I am. I mean, she didn’t even show remorse for him when she was giving him away? Just bitterness that he ruined her reputation? It’s been a while since I’ve seen a breaking of the mold on villains like this, and I welcomed it because I’m starting to get tired of the “My heart was broken so now I hate life” troupe. She’s also just so ruthless and violent, every time she entered the scene I felt genuine fear. I’m so terrified of her finding out that Elias and Laia are still alive, and of what she’ll do to manipulate Marcus (horrible person as he is, I don’t think that he could be as bad as the Comandant on his own).
There’s another part of my notes that just says, “Okay, I don’t even know what’s happening anymore with the romantic subplot. Whatever you want Tahir, I’ll go with it.” And yeah, that sums up by feelings there. I shipped Helene with Elias so much at the beginning, but seeing as there’s not really a chance of that happening anymore, but yet I still don’t know what to think of Elias and Laia…? *shrugs* I like how they didn’t fall in love in this book, because I hate insta-romances, but there’s definitely something there, so I’ll just have to see in the sequel?
Speaking of Helene. I love her character! Tahir has a way of making you sympathetic about every character, and I definately felt so much for her. Her entire life is a struggle with people underestimating her, and her arc is so sad, ah! My feels….
I just hope she survives, that she’ll hold out until the end and find happiness.
I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for the three-trials plot device. I eat it up, as I did with this. As for the actual trials themselves, I wished we got more than just fighting, maybe a test where they had to use their brains without their fists and weapons? But I was always on the edge of my seat waiting to figure out what the next trial was going to be.
I like how the resistance isn’t the ‘good guy.’ There’s this point in my notes that just says “…I’m starting to think that I can’t trust the resistance…” and I laugh because I don’t know when exactly it was that I came to that conclusion, but now that I look back I realize how apparent it was all along.
The whole plot just kept getting more and more intense as the book went on, I think I said in a Goodreads update something to the effect of, “Every time I think the characters can’t have it worse, something worse happens D:”. It blew me away how Tahir could maintain that intensity, and build off such an strong beginning into an ending that left me utterly speechless.
The ‘fight against the empire’ thing has been done over about a hundred times too many. I’m not against troupes, but it’s important to take a unique spin on them. Tahir I think does this well, by focusing not on conquering all, but conquering oneself. Elias and Laia learn mostly about their inner selves, how to be brave and preserve their own soul, exactly where their morals stand and what lines they won’t cross. They don’t just start attacking the empire with the excuse that it’s ‘for the greater good.’ And that’s something that will make this series far different from every other adventure fantasy series out there; these characters have morals that they learned through experience that will help them not just to tear down the old world, but build a better one in its place.