Title: An Ember in the Ashes
Author: Sabaa Tahir
Series: Book #1 in the An Ember in the Ashes trilogy
Publisher: Razorbill – An Imprint of Penguin
Publication Date: April 28, 2015
Genres: Young Adult – Fantasy, Romance, Action
Format: Purchased Hardcover
“An Ember in the Ashes” by Sabaa Tahir is a story about a girl named Laia who’s world is turned upside down one night where her grandparents are killed and her brother is taken into custody for the supposed accusation of him being a traitor to the Empire. She meets with the Resistance to go undercover as a slave in the Commandant’s house – right under the noses of the enemy – to find out what she can about the military school that is Blackcliff and how she can help her brother to escape prison.
It is also the story about Elias, a solider (a Mask) of Blackcliff who is almost graduated. He doesn’t want to be a Mask though, and he wants to escape from the path laid out before him. But when an opportunity arises that would allow him to be free in both body and soul, he takes up the opportunity and discovers there’s a lot more to the life he had been living than he thought.
This story deserved the hype it got, in my opinion.
It was full of heartache and blood and danger, but it was also filled with hope and desire and the will and need for freedom.
Let me talk about the characters.
Laia starts out as this kind of weak character. She feels like she should fight, to put up a stand when her brother is being taken in as a prisoner, but instead she runs and she feels the guilt of that through most of the book. She tries to convince herself on multiple occasions that she should be more like her mother and let that fierceness drive her and save her brother. But she runs and she’s afraid that she’s cowardly because of it. As the story progresses, she is wary and makes mistakes, which makes her human. She puts up with a lot of physical abuse and is braver than she can imagine or even believe. She puts her trust into people she hardly knows, but I think that that trust is slowly put to the test and she becomes more aware of those around her as the story progresses. She is frustrating at times because she constantly thinks of “if only I did this” or “if only I did that,” but that’s not who she is as a person. She’s more reserved, but she has a strong spirit and a fire that drives her to want to save her brother. I think that fire was one of the best things about her and that will be a driving force in the next book.
Elias, on the other hand, is a strong character. He’s been molder into a soldier, to be one of the deadliest in the Empire – a Mask. He wants to desert and live life freely, to be away from blood and war and carnage. But he has to pretend that he’s not up to something, even when his best friend, Helene, suspects that he is. He tries to be strong and to let instincts lead him when he needs to, but there is agony in him and a desire to be free forever from his mother, the Commandant, and Blackcliff itself. I found Elias to be extremely likable and the fact that he had such a strong will in him, and compassion unlike many of the other Masks at Blackcliff, was a great redeemable quality in him. He felt human and relatable. He was everything that complimented Laia’s otherwise weaker disposition, but the roles seemed to have reversed toward the end, even for a little while.
The Commandant is a ruthless killing machine. She oversees all of Blackcliff and is very cold and cruel to everyone and anyone around her. She makes a great villain, and even though you get a small glimpse into one part of her past, there’s still a lot of mystery shrouding her and her motives (because boy are they dark). I don’t have much sympathy for her, and frankly, I’m rooting for her death.
Helene is Elias’s best friend as the two of them were thrust into the same ranks together and went through many a trial together to survive. She’s one to follow orders to the letter and hates to disobey them. And I don’t think she ever has. She’s a well-trained killer and doesn’t really reflect or remorse that often. I found her to be a strong female character and that how a lot of people underestimated her was something great to point out in a book because a lot of female characters, regardless if they’re strong or not, are often underestimated in intelligence, strength, emotions, or otherwise. The fact that she could kick ass was awesome. I hope to see more of her later on.
Marcus is another kind of villainous character that relishes in blood and causing a load of hurt on others. The scenes with him in there were rough and he was often mean, always mean, and I can see him somehow being struck down soon.
Now there’s plenty more side characters I could mention: Izzi and her awesome humor; Keenan and his awkwardness, but cold demeanor; Cook for her otherwise passive attitude, and more. I really hope to see more of them in the next installment because they made the story richer and more enticing.
The plot of the story itself was a simple one at the beginning: releasing Laia’s brother, Darin, from prison. But as the story progressed and Laia’s and Elias’s stories began to intertwine, the plot and what needed to happen became more complex and intensified. Between Laia finding the Resistance to become a slave, to what she deals with as such, and beyond, to Elias dealing with deserting or a destiny much different and potentially much greater than he ever thought, I was hooked. I think that the primary goal of releasing Darin was still the main driving force behind a majority of what happened and will happen, but there’s so much more that needs to be explored that I can’t share without it getting spoilery. Ahhhhh!
The world building was subtle, but it was vivid enough to be like any painting or movie out there. What was described might not have been paragraphs and paragraphs of setting and everything, but it was enough that you got a sense and feel of what the world looks like, tastes like, smells like. It was beautiful and simple, yet complex.
Overall, this story, with its dual POVs, action sequences, hints of romance, world building, stories, magic, and mystery, was a lovely and enticing read and I highly recommend it.
I rated this book 5/5 stars.