Review—An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Over break, I finally read An Ember In The Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. I had been curious about the book, and then when it showed up on Amanda Nelson’s “Best of 2015,” I knew I had to read it. So I did.

I was not disappointed in any way. The book, which mixes what could be Roman history with middle eastern mythologies, is told from the dual perspectives of Laia and and Elias. Laia is a Scholar who loses what little is left of her family to Masks, soldiers who train at the elite and cruel Blackcliff Military Academy. Elias is a Martial, one of the highly skilled Masks—though not one that takes Laia’s family from her—and his fellow Masks and soldiers look up to him as a leader.

An Ember in the Ashes

While Laia and Elias hail from extremely different backgrounds, they are remarkably similar. Both are headstrong, principled, and whip-smart. Also, both are effectively orphans. Laia is so because her parents died fighting in the resistance, and Elias because his mother abandoned him in the desert as soon as she gave birth to him. Thanks to the influence of his grandfather, head of Gens Veturius, Elias finds his way to Blackcliff to train as an elite soldier, a Mask. Laia finds her way to Blackcliff an entirely different way, but their paths cross just as their stars must have long ago.

Together, yet separate, Laia and Elias move through an intricate plot and even more intricately built world controlled by ancient prophets known as Augurs. Elias struggles under the twin burdens of the expectations of his grandfather and the cold distance of his mother, as well as the prophecies of the Augurs. Laia fights against not only her new role as the servant-girl of the Commandant, but also her fear and anxiety, which sometimes take the near-physical form of the shadowy ghuls that plague her.

Laia and Elias are both well-developed characters, and the world around them—the setting, history, mythology, and their destinies—are almost characters in and of themselves. I loved that Laia grew into her own fierceness once she learned how to dominate her fears, and that Elias grew into his own humanity after a series of trials.

To me, this book fits well with Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses and Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn. Both are, like Ember, fantastical yet completely human in their treatment of character development and the reality of being strong and yet weak simultaneously. The difference with Ember is that we see both a young man and young woman grow into their own, whereas the former two focus solely on a female character (which is not a problem, just making sure that is clear).

I did identify more with Laia’s journey; the ghuls seem almost to be metaphors for mental illness and the way we let our fears, anxieties, and worries overtake us. It was encouraging and gratifying to read as Laia learned how to hold those parts of her at bay while still acknowledging their existence and role in her life.

I can’t wait for the sequel (which Tahir confirmed on Twitter she’s working on)!

Jacket copy:

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.

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