An Ember in the Ashes is a story about Laia and Elias, two people from very different backgrounds. Laia is a member of the Scholar class, a people who were defeated by Elias’ people, the Martials. There shouldn’t be anything that drives them together, especially when Elias is a Mask, an elite fighting force that the Martials use to terrorize and imprison Scholars like Laia’s brother. But when Laia puts herself in a dangerous situation for the Scholar Resistance in order to help secure the release of her brother, their paths cross in unlikely ways. How can a Scholar and a Martial find common ground? And will they escape with their lives?
I can see why this book was so hyped up. It’s the reason I wanted to read it. The reason I was so eager to get my hands on a copy and was incredibly disappointed when NetGalley turned me down for an ARC. However, I feel like the hype was a smidge too much. An Ember in the Ashes is a page-turner for sure; I was disappointed when I had to put it down to pursue my adult-life obligations. The only reason I say it was too hyped up is because while it promises that it’s inspired by Ancient Rome, I was disappointed by the lack of world building. I did feel that the book relied too much on that blurb–it was like we were meant to fill in the setting ourselves with only a little detail given us. I wish that more concrete descriptions were given to us! There are points in the story, like the festival that Laia goes to, that are described really beautifully. Ultimately, I’m disappointed that the world wasn’t as expansive as I wanted it to be. The Roman-esque setting was a big attraction for me and I wanted to see more of the world. I’m hoping that it will be expanded on in the next book.
What was cool about An Ember in the Ashes was the fantasy aspect of it. Learning about the culture of the Masks (the silver mask literally attaches and merges with their skin! Freaky!) and the Empire was really interesting. The world may not have been as richly described, but the more minute aspects of daily life was something that I could get behind. I liked the differences between the Scholar and Martial cultures. One’s more peaceful, yet they have a Scholar Resistance. The other is military based, yet a lot of the Masks question the level of the Empire’s cruelty toward the Scholars. The differences in their culture are used to highlight that not everyone views everything in black and white terms. I liked that there were sympathetic characters on the Martial side and questionable characters on the Scholar side. Each also have their own legends on why the Scholars lost and the Empire won, and I’m looking forward to seeing the other lands on the next books! I hope that happens.
An Ember in the Ashes is told in the alternating first person point of views of Laia and Elias. Laia is a Scholar, someone who has been downtrodden her entire life. She and her family make do, eking out a life under the Martial rule. When things change drastically, she tries to become stronger but remains naïve. So unbelievably naïve. She lives in a world where Martials sometimes harm Scholars just for the fun of it. So while I can believe that she is somewhat blinded by her desire to rescue her brother, when she was consistently doing rash things that put her in dangerous spots, I could hardly stand it. If she wants to rescue her brother, she needs to be a little sneakier. Eventually she starts acting braver. I was happy about that because I got a little tired of her whining about how she was a coward, yet did nothing to change it. Ultimately, we’re meant to sympathize with Laia but I didn’t particularly like her. When she finally started taking the initiative I was able to like her. I hope she doesn’t revert back in the next novel. I did really like Elias, other than something that I outline later in my review. Elias is a Mask, but he’s so torn up by his role that he’s looking for ways out. I really liked that he was on the inside and so against the Empire. Almost immediately in the novel we’re shown the brutal culture of the Masks–they whip children to death, they treat Scholars as subhuman–and how horrible living at the training center is, yet then we’re given a very sympathetic character. There’s hints that he’s not the only one who thinks that way, but he’s the only one willing to act against it. He felt very real.
The supporting characters in An Ember in the Ashes are great. Between Scholar slaves and rebels and Martial Masks and rulers, there’s quite a variety. That’s why I wish that the novel had been written in a third person point of view. I think it would have added more descriptions and opened up the world more. I wish that more time had been spent with Helene and the other Masks. They were my favorite supporting characters. I got the sense that they’re trapped like Elias. It’s clear that not everyone believes in the Commandant and the Empire’s treatment of Scholars, yet they’re too scared to do anything. Helene especially seemed conflicted, with her feelings and jealousies causing her to act rashly. I’m hoping the next novel in the series will have some Helene point of view chapters. She is my favorite character and always tried to protect the people she loved. It was heartbreaking when she couldn’t protect them.
Something that is done well in An Ember in the Ashes is the tension. Sabaa Tahir knows how to write scenes that make me really worried for the characters. This world is not kind, even if you’re in the upper class. There’s a danger to it that is expressed really well in the writing. Although the book is in the point of view of two characters, there were moments when I thought they were done for. This is helped along by the fact that some of the chapters end in cliff-hangers. Laia and Elias deal with different tensions in their lives and Tahir illustrated that clearly. I felt that the tension between Elias and Helene was done particularly well. Not only do they have to worry about dying in the trials, but they also have to navigate confusing emotions.
A frustrating part of the novel for me was actually the romance. I felt that it existed just to exist; rather than having any meat to why the characters were attracted to each other, it was just told to us in a “this is how it is” sort of way. It felt so flat and fake. I know that a lot of people probably like the pairings, but I personally didn’t feel that the romance was real. I understand that oftentimes there’s a sort of “love at first sight” element to romance in books (and even real life), but there were pages where Elias described how beautiful Laia and Helene are, rather than what they were doing. Or what they were doing was somehow combined with Elias describing how their bodies looked doing the action. They’re diminished to their beauty and not their talents. Helene especially suffered from this. She’s a warrior, like Elias–and possibly better than Elias because she’s the only female fighter at a school full of male fighters–but he often describes how her armor accents her body. It’s ironic because as her best friend, he knows that people underestimate her because she’s a girl, yet he does the same thing. I hope that this changes significantly–or at least doesn’t become the focus of Elias’ narration it sometimes became–in the next novel.
As mentioned before, Tahir knows how to write tension. The sexual tension between Elias and Helene was some of the only romance that felt real. They’ve been together for so long that it seems natural that some feelings would have developed. In contrast, there’s Laia and Elias’ budding relationship. I’d be very surprised if this didn’t end up becoming a thing because it’s so heavily pushed in An Ember in the Ashes. If it had been allowed to progress naturally, I would have loved it. It has the element of forbidden love that I normally enjoy. Instead, I felt that it was just there because it felt “required” of YA books. It’s even more odd when Tahir seems to set up other relationships in this book, yet they’re clearly not the focus. Those were the ones that made sense to me, but instead we’re subjected to one that doesn’t seem as real.
And now I get to the truly negative part of my review. The threat of rape in this book. I’ll preface it by saying that yes, I do realize this world is modeled after Ancient Rome and as such this was a part of it. That said, my issue wasn’t the inclusion of rape and the threat of it; my issue was the fact that it was used for advancing the plot and for the character development of Elias. It existed solely, in my opinion, to show how nice Elias was and to compare him against more brutal Masks. Here’s the thing, though: we already know that Elias is a nice guy because the other point of view is his. He very clearly isn’t a horrible person. He really struggles with his role as a Mask and longs to escape it. Elias is counting down the days until he can escape. Therefore, we don’t need to see Laia nearly raped in order for him to swoop in and protect her to prove a point of his character. This event happens in his point of view (although it was started in hers), and I felt it only existed to, again, show how he is more human than monster compared to the others. This just didn’t need to be. If it had been taken out, there would have been other ways to advance the plot. Rape is a sensitive subject. If it’s going to be included, it needs to be done in a sensitive and well-thought out way. I felt that An Ember in the Ashes failed on this count.
Ultimately, I wanted to like this book more than I did. The gratuitous use of the threat of rape against the female characters–even if it fit in this world inspired by Ancient Rome–as a way to further male characters really knocked this down for me. I liked the strong female characters like Helene and Laia–although Laia still has a long way to go–and the other supporting characters. They made the book more interesting. An Ember in the Ashes was a fast read that was full of tension, even if some of events were obvious in how they were set up. I’m interested in seeing what happens to the characters in the next book. An Ember in the Ashes ends with huge changes, so I imagine there will be tons of conflict in the next book that Elias and Laia need to navigate. I recommend this for readers who like young adult fantasy with a historical tinge to it, but be warned that Tahir doesn’t sugar-coat the violence in it.
A huge thank you to Tessa for providing me with a copy of this book!