An Ember in the Ashes (An Ember in the Ashes #1) by Sabaa Tahir
When this book came out it was added to my TBR shelf because the cover was really nice. It’s simple but I really liked the text (especially the physical copy) and the color scheme wasn’t flashy. I had no idea what the book was actually about but then I was only going by the cover. And I just love to cover judge…
I didn’t actually pick it up though, until this year when it was recommended to me by my brother. He’d practically told me all about the book but I finally started reading it after I’d forgotten a lot of what he told me (the perks of a bad memory)
In An Ember in the Ashes we follow two characters, Laia and Elias, as they live under the Martial Empire rule. Laia is a naive Scholar girl who lives with her grandparents and brother, believing everything is alright until one night when she finds her brother’s sketchbook is filled with incriminating illustrations. Illustrations that end up costing her grandparents their lives, her brother’s freedom, and her sanity.
Forced to flee the night raid at her home, Laia goes to the Resistance (rebel group) in hopes of getting help for her brother. They reluctantly agree to help with the condition that she becomes a spy for them at Blackcliff, the leading military academy of the Empire. It’s a suicide mission but she agrees, the guilt of her fleeing the raid gnawing at her conscious
Elias, on the other hand, is one of the Masks at Blackcliff, soon to be graduate and, if all goes to plan, a deserter. He’s got his whole escape plan in order but then the Augurs show up at Blackcliff, claiming that a new leader for the Empire is needed, that the prophecy of Emperor Taius XXI falling has come to fruition. And in order to choose a new emperor, the Trials are to start and only four of Blackcliff’s greatest graduates (dubbed Aspirants) are to compete for the crown. Elias ends up being one of the four graduates and his plans of desertion are ruined.
The world that we’re introduced to is really interesting, but not enough where I feel immersed and don’t want to put the book down.
I really like the idea of Blackcliff existing, though honestly, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere in that world. If I were a to-be Mask, I’d probably die with how rigorous the training is and if I were anything but a Martial, my life would probably be filled with hardships (especially considering I’m a girl). We got a lot of the background information of how the Martials came to power through a story Laia was told. Something that seems to be important but that was only told nearing the end of the book
The Trials that happen are interesting but none of them resulted in anything I’d consider high-risk for the characters. Even during the Trial of Courage when one of the characters was on the verge of death, I didn’t worry. There was nothing in the style or descriptions that made my heart pound with worry or suspense
Oh I have a lot to say about this. Sorry as I veer into some spoiler-ish content. I’ll try not to talk about anything too important
Elias and Laia: When the book started I was actually more in line with Elias. I really liked that he was going to take the risk of deserting because Blackcliff (and really his mother) wouldn’t just let him escape. They would hunt him down until they knew he was dead. Everything about him just spoke to me more. Laia was the one I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t believe she’d betrayed her family like that (night raid) but then I stopped to think. It felt somewhat appropriate, since she had lived a rather peaceful life
But then the Trails happened and I actually started liking Laia more than Elias. Laia did start off as a weakling who ran away, but she (mostly) changed that. She was still afraid and, compared to others, didn’t handle pain well. But she became the Commandant’s slave knowing the risks involved. Even when she was afraid she pushed herself to complete her tasks in order to save her brother from whatever jail he was being kept in. I did think she was a bit too naive when it came to believing other people’s intentions but again, I placed myself in her shoes and felt it made sense
Elias I just could not feel for anymore because he just wouldn’t kill anyone! I know, this sounds like a ridiculous complaint but hear me out. In this world where he’s a Mask, a supposed ruthless killer trying to desert, he needs to fake certain things. In the beginning there’s a part where one of the younger kids at Blackcliff tries to escape. He’s brought back and whipped to death. While everyone is cheering for the kid’s demise, Elias is upset, which he has a right to, but he makes it obvious enough that it’s a risk. Some of his peers don’t like him already, his own mother (the Commandant) is just looking for any excuse to kill him, and he’s openly showing he’s against her orders
This one part was minor and didn’t result in any negative consequences, but there are times during the Trials where there are greater consequences because he’s choked. I understand he doesn’t want to become a ruthless killer but sometimes some things need to be done
Helene: Helene is Elias’s best friend and the only girl at Blackcliff (there’s actually a rule about this). I actually liked her quite a bit at the beginning. She was said to be one of the best of the graduates, hence why she became one of the Aspirants during the Trials, but when it came to her actually in action…well, I didn’t think she was such a badass. There are times when she just freezes up and is beat that I’m wondering why she was such a tough cookie. Then there are times where we’re just told she was ruthless but never really witness it even though she fights side-by-side with Elias.
She’s pretty much the prime example of a Mask. Wasn’t too much a fan of her hypocrisy though
Commandant: There wasn’t really much about the Commandant, other than her being ruthless and Elias’s mother. We got more background information on her in the last few pages of the book and so far I like her the most. I remember one of the slaves saying she was human, that she made errors like everyone else but that she was smart enough to never make the same mistake twice. It really fits her. Plus, other spoilery content but I’ll leave that to you all if you pick the book up
Yes I just created this category because I wanted to rant about the romance in this book!
I think the one star next to this heading is enough to convey my feelings about the romance (ie. I didn’t like it). One reason is that it’s a love triangle and how I despise those things. Another is because none of them are developed enough to count as proper couples but it was such a big (and sometimes unspeakable) thing that I just have to talk about it
Elias/Helene: We learn and can tell that Helene loves Elias, but Elias doesn’t know this until one of his friends spells it out. It’s mentioned in the book that there’s something between them that Elias can’t put a name to. I call it attraction. Yes he really cares about her as we saw during the first Trial and when he’s willing to turn ruthless killer for her, but like her? Their mentalities are too different and Helene is everything Elias is trying to escape. It just wouldn’t work (if you ask me)
Laia/Keenan: One of the Augur mention that Keenan is the guy that Laia’s heart wants and I’m just behooved by this. Why would she want the guy who tried to kill her when they first met and has only seen about 5 times for maybe 5 minutes each time? There is no background to this “relationship” that I can think of as being ok. I can see that Keenan may feel an obligation to her, respect for what she’s doing, and possibly lust, but real affection? Not really. They hardly interacted
Elias/Laia: This one makes more sense out of the three to me. For one, Helene was said to be the only girl at Blackcliff and aside from that, if any of the guys wanted to have a night of passion, they’d either rape a slave or sleep with a girl outside of Blackcliff. Outside of Helene, Laia is the only girl Elias may know to be so strong and willing to risk her life for others. Elias has also come to Laia’s rescue whenever he sees that she’s in trouble, becoming overly protective and emotional when she’s involved. Plus, they can actually sit down and have a real conversation without having to worry about it ruining where they stand (in fact, this makes them closer)
Not saying I’m for Elias/Laia but if it turns out this is the endgame, I wouldn’t be surprised
I actually forgot what the point of the book was somewhere halfway through. Laia wants to save her brother, yes, but there’s just so much and so little going on that I’m wondering if he’s even still alive (status confirmed at end). Then there’s Elias who wants to escape Blackcliff and being a Mask but he’s also playing into the Augurs games. Plus the fact that the Empire needs a new emperor. Out of these three things, only the last one gets resolved. I’m imagining that the second book will focus more on saving Laia’s brother and from there I’m not really sure what will happen. If Elias can even have freedom
In a way this book feels like a setup in a series but I know the second book picks up directly after this so it is important to read this one
I ended up giving this a 2/5 on Goodreads for an OK rating though I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend it
The world wasn’t immersive enough for my tastes and the risks weren’t real to me. I was never worried if our protagonists would survive the day because they had to. The only part that did surprise me was what happened at the last Trial, which is the one that decides who the new emperor will be. The character development could have been better, especially for Elias who just seemed to tumble into an abyss. I did like reading up on the things Laia did, how she changed from the first moment we met her. How something as small as hiding the letter K to finally revealing it spoke of her character.
There were a few magical elements that I felt were confusing at times, such as the creatures (aside from the Augurs) that we’re introduced to. I feel like they might become something more important in a later book because of the history of the Empire, but for now I haven’t really registered who they are. Possibly because we started with no magic and now suddenly there is
Also, I’ve never been a fan of switching POVs, but I felt this book did it well enough to not be distracting
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