Title: An Ember in the Ashes
Author: Sabaa Tahir
Genre: Young Adult, Dystopia, Fantasy
Page Count: 446
Notable Notables: POC characters
Recommended Readers: Fans of more brutal fantasy books
This book review is going to be very tricky for me because my feelings for it are so mixed.
I will say that, overall, I liked it–although it took me until a bit over halfway for me to really become invested, and it certainly didn’t make any of my favorite shelves. The book also ended with enough mystery and intrigue that I’m going to be looking into its sequel whenever it comes out on paperback, but certainly not hardback as I did with this one.
That being said, I also almost put the book down twice–once because I was bored with the pace and the other because things just got to be a bit too much…
But first, the breakdown!
Laia is a slave belonging to a conquered people under the Martial Empire. When her brother is arrested for treason, she allies with a group of rebels who promise to save him. In exchange, Laia must spy on the Commandant from the midst of the empire’s most prestigious military academy. There, she meets Elias, the Commandant’s son and academy’s best soldier, but he doesn’t want to walk the path he’s expected to follow, longing for freedom instead. When their destinies start to intertwine, their decisions affect change that ripples across the entire Empire.
What really hurt the book was the fact that it was told in first person from the POVs of the two main characters, Laia and Elias, and their voices sounded exactly the same. There would be times I would flip ahead (I know, bad reader!), and I honestly couldn’t tell who was speaking until said character brought up the names of other characters that they alone personally interacted with. I honestly felt like the storytelling could have been more effective if told in third-person limited instead. Ah, YA authors, why do you love first person and hate third person so?
I think I’ve also figured out that, while I love dystopias, I really, really hate reading about dystopias with a firm foundation of sexism as a plot device–especially when it’s mostly just used to show how terrible and inherently evil the dystopian society is. I get enough of real-life sexism on the daily; I don’t need it in my fiction, particularly when nothing is really being done about it in said fiction.
If I had this as an ebook, I would tell you the number of times the word “rape” is said or mentioned just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about. Just know that it’s a lot. (And by the way, the reader never actually witnesses any rape happen, but it’s talked about so often because it’s a natural occurrence all the time, e.g. the Masks and students of Blackcliff rape slaves/Scholars all the time. Yeah, no thanks.)
But onto the characters. Laia is, by far, the most well-written character for me. She feels like a real person, with obvious flaws and weaknesses that she fights all the time to grow into a better character. She has a real drive and purpose to be better: to save her brother’s life and to try to right the wrongs done to her and her family. And her growth from being a coward and self-preservationist to being someone she’s proud of is a wonderful thing to read. I also loved Izzi and Cook, and Keenan grew on me with a rapidness I didn’t expect. His presence–or lack thereof–in the sequel will probably either make or break it for me.
That being said, I wasn’t overly impressed with Elias, and I think part of that was because of his constantly frustrating interactions with his best friend, Helene, who I still don’t know how I feel about. His character arc didn’t get interesting until the Third Trial, which is also the part where I almost put the book down because it was nearly Too Much to handle. Elias isn’t a total asshole or a raging, misogynistic rapist like his fellow Masks and students at Blackcliff are, so at least reading his narrative wasn’t cringe-worthy in that respect.
Helene, for her part, I have nothing terribly against. I just couldn’t identify with her. Her main flaw is that she is loyal to a fault–to Elias and to the Empire–and she doesn’t question anything. She can kick ass, true, but it takes more than the Strong Female Character trope to actually make someone a strong female character. Fortunately, she did have other traits that made her feel like a real character, so she passes in that regard.
Again, I just couldn’t see where she was coming from. I identified much more with Laia, with her bad parts especially. Helene does have an interesting gift that suddenly emerges, but its reveal quickly took a backseat to everything else and my intrigue in her went with it. I honestly liked Elias’ grandfather more than I did her. (The man wanted to fight the entire school and Empire for his grandson by the end of it. How could I not come to like him?)
As far as the other characters are concerned, there’s going to be tons of them that you’ll hate, and that’s always fun. Marcus, the Augurs, the Commandant, Mazen. There’s a treasure trove of corruption and [blows a raspberry] here to give you endless time to bond with your internal hatred. Of these, I’ll only talk about the Commandant, because she deserves to be talked about.
Having to interact with her as a reader took me back to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix where Dolores Umbridge was introduced as a character. Like Umbridge, the Commandant is vicious, delights in punishment and torture, and is honestly the most hateful person on the planet. She’s also cold, ruthless, and ambitious to the point where she plots her own son’s death. Wonderfully written character, and I love to hate her.
I definitely don’t think that this book is for everyone. If you have a thing about child mistreatment (as in violently conscripting and conditioning kids to be soldiers), young adults (we’re talking still teenagers) literally murdering and threatening to rape each other, and for really gross and demeaning slavery, this is not for you (it almost wasn’t for me, yikes). But the characters and world-building is, overall, interesting, and there’s plenty of mystery. I have high hopes that the second book will do much better, as it promises to be set away from Blackcliff, which I personally feel needs to be razed to the ground.