An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
“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. Such moments are tests of courage, of strength.”
The first book in what is sure to be an incredible fantasy series was an historical adventure from the perspective of two very different people. Based on Ancient Rome, the evil Martial Empire has conquered almost the entire known world and Laia is one of the latest victims. Her grandparents murdered and brother imprisoned, Laia goes on the run from the Mask that destroyed her life and seeks refuge with the Resistance, members of the slaved Scholar Class that still fight against the Martial regime. On the opposite side of the social hierarchy, Elias is the finest soldier at Blackcliff Academy, who is days away from graduating as a Mask and becoming an assassin-for-hire. Instead of celebrating with the rest of his class, Elias has plans to desert the school – his life – and spend the remainder of his days on the run.
This book has everything: fantastic world-building, complex characters and enthralling action. There are so many twists, surprises and the characters are forced to make difficult choices. It’s basically psychological torment for many of these characters, and very interesting to experience.
(warning: spoilers below)
The strongest part of this novel by far is the world-building. Tahir has gone above and beyond here to create a distinct fantasy world. The history is rich, modeled on Ancient Rome. It’s refreshing to read about a YA world where the pleasant side of life and go-happy people is set aside for more realistic elements, such as rape and slavery. Oppression, the importance of education, loyalty vs. free will, power, and right vs. wrong are just some of the themes the novel deals with and the discussion involved in important. This is such a powerful novel in incorporating dozens of themes in the background of the main plot. This is the mark of a very talented writer. Major props to Sabaa Tahir.
The story itself is told from two perspectives: Laia and Elias. They are both very different characters, who both show strength, power and independence in distinct ways. At the beginning of the novel, Laia is a frightened seventeen year old girl who’s world has been destroyed. When she joins the Resistance, their leader convinces her to spy on the Commandant of Blackcliff Academy and then they will rescue her brother from prison. Under the torture and grueling treatment from the Commandant, Laia really comes into her own. She grows from a shy, terrified young girl into a strong-willed, determined woman. Elias is the best soldier the school as seen in decades, and the heir to the powerful, proud and wealthy Veturius clan. He, along with the other students at the Academy, has suffered through years of life-threatening training and he no longer wants anything to do with the Martial Empire. He is ready to leave everything behind: his title, his family and his best friend, Helene. That is, until, the Empire’s perennial prophecy is finally set to be completed.
According to the Augurs, when the current Emperor’s family can no longer produce heirs, four Academy students will be chosen to compete in a series of trials against each other, where the winner will be named Emperor and the runner-up as the Emperor’s right-hand man. The other two will be executed. Elias, Helene and their mortal enemies, Marcus and Zak (twins) have been chosen as the four contestants.
The two protagonists do not actually have much contact with each other: Laia is trying to complete her mission and spy on the murderous Commandant – who just so happens to be Elias’ mother – and Elias must compete in the dangerous trials and fight for his life, as well as Helene’s. The only times they really spend time together is when Elias follows Laia when she sneaks out of the Academy to meet her contacts in the Resistance and they dance together at a festival; and when Elias wins Laia as a ‘prize’ and they spend the night talking together. In fact, and this is a rarity in YA fiction, the protagonists actually have other love interests, something I hardheartedly enjoy and accept. Elias starts to develop feelings for Helene, who has been his best friend for years, and is even more confused when he discovers she is in love with him. I absolutely adored their relationship and I really, with all my heart, hope they find a way to be together at the end. Laia, too, has a blossoming romance with a Resistance member, which I really enjoyed watching develop. I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that Tahir will introduce Elias and Laia as a couple in the sequel, which I do not want to happen. For the first time in … forever, I am not shipping main characters as love interests and I think I will be disappointed if Laia and Elias get together.
So much happens in this novel: its fast-paced, action packed and engrossing. The final scenes of the novel where so surprising I spent the last hour gasping aloud. The third trial was so terrifying and heartbreaking I had to put the book aside for a good ten minutes before I could pick it up again. It really reinforced the depravity and evil of the Martial Empire. The final trial was too easy to be true, and I was actually rooting for Elias to do what needed to be done. Essentially, whoever kills Laia will be crowned Emperor. Helene knocks out Marcus and begs Elias to kill Laia, so he would be crowned Emperor and she would become his second-in-command, the Blood Shrike. He chose not to, and Marcus was able to kill Laia (supposedly) and became Emperor, Helene his Blood Shrike. After Elias is arrested, Laia rescues him and they are forced to go on the run, setting up for events of the sequel.
When I finished this book, I thought that the novel would have been better off without Laia; perhaps a story about a young man becoming king instead. Laia was a great character, don’t get me wrong, but I did not enjoy her chapters as much as Elias’. That being said, I am very excited to read the sequel. I was rooting for Elias becoming Emperor and making Helene his Queen, so I wonder where Tahir will take us in A Torch Against the Night. So long as the series ends with Elias on the throne, I’ll be happy.
Buy the book here.