Today I am reviewing An Ember in the Ashes, by Sabaa Tahir. It is her first book, released April 28, 2015 by Penguin Young Readers Group, ISBN 9781595148032. An Ember in the Ashes is just beautiful, a wonderful action adventure fantasy for young adults that is just under 500 pages (464 is the official count). Told in dual narration, it’s just amazing.
First, from the publisher:
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.
First, I was hooked on the dual narration; not only do you get to see both Elais’ and Laia’s stories, but also you get to read their thoughts and go through their growth as characters, and their growth is HUGE. Laia’s world is destroyed within her first few chapters, and she struggles through the rest of the book to gain it back, working under everyone else’s assumptions and her own misplaced trusts. Elais starts out untrusting and lost, and he struggles with his own doubts and lost faith.
The world that Sabaa built is just remarkable, as well. I realize that it was based on ancient Rome, and you can definitely see that echoed throughout the book (take note, teachers, and throw that into your bag for next fall’s curriculum pairings), yet the fantasy and spirituality also reminded me of Islamic theology, however I am of no means any type of expert so don’t take my word on it. I loved the detail, the immersion into the entirely separate cultures of the Scholars and the Martials, and the way that they are completely, seamlessly woven together. It’s absolutely brilliant.
I really respected that Sabaa didn’t tone down the violence that would have gone on in that type of culture and world that she built. This book isn’t for those that are more sensitive, and the violence perpetrated towards women by men and by a woman towards others isn’t softened in any way. There is death, there is torture, there is the suggestion of rape and there is attempted rape- all of which went on in Rome during battles, all of which goes on in war, and actually all of which goes on in real life.
I really liked that there are extremely well-created secondary characters- Helene, Marcus, Izzy, Cook, and others have their own back-stories and their own personalities, and aren’t just the stand-up cutouts that you find in other books. You come to understand Elias’ grandfather’s motives, you learn the Cook’s secrets and why she is doubly paranoid- everyone has at least one facet that sparkles and makes them unique.
Aside from the rumors that this is a stand-alone book, yet I hope that it is only waiting for acceptance of its brilliance and then it’ll be extended? The fact that I did not have tissues when Elias hit the Third Trial. I warn you now, get a box, you will need it.
Helene’s final decision. That’s all I can say without ruining the entire book, but go read it, and then come back and comment or find me on Twitter and we’ll have a huge discussion, because
Review journals put it at ages 14 and up and grades 9 and up, and that’s where I’d put it as well (teen collections), with the HUGE warning that there is violence, attempted rape, and torture in the book. I would not give it to a younger reader I didn’t know, even if they’ve sworn up and down that they’ve read The Hunger Games and Divergent series and want the next new thing.