Book: An Ember In The Ashes (An Ember In The Ashes #1)
Author: Sabaa Tahir
BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Laia and Izzi have a discussion about the Commandant.
An Ember In The Ashes is one of those books that has been on my TBR FOREVER (okay well like two years, but still) and it’s also one of those that you constantly hear about on Book Twitter, but for whatever reason it took me forever to get around to it. An Ember In The Ashes was my #RockMyTBR challenge book for August, and I have to admit I was pretty excited due to all the hype I had seen about it. Sadly however, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I was expecting to, I thought the world building was lacking, and the characters were flat and difficult to connect with. Here is a short synopsis of the book:
Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death.
When Laia’s grandparents are brutally murdered and her brother arrested for treason by the empire, the only people she has left to turn to are the rebels.
But in exchange for their help in saving her brother, they demand that Laia spy on the ruthless Commandant of Blackcliff, the Empire’s greatest military academy. Should she fail it’s more than her brother’s freedom at risk . . . Laia’s very life is at stake.
There, she meets Elias, the academy’s finest soldier. But 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.
I think the characters were probably my biggest issue with this book. Despite the fact that the book is written in first person POV, it felt like both Elias and Laia were keeping the reader at a distance, I didn’t feel like I got to know either of them as closely as I would usually expect in a book that is written in first person POV.
Both Elias and Laia were incredibly passive actors in their own stories. They didn’t drive the plot, instead, the plot kind of just happened around them. Laia in particular, was incredibly naive and willing to believe everything that she was told, rather than questioning it. Elias was also quite frustrating, he only really seemed to care about the plight of the slaves and the Scholars when there was something at stake for him (ie Laia).
At least Laia, who starts the story as quite a weak, and scared girl has some convincing character development throughout, she grows into her strength and I liked how she wasn’t necessarily your standard “kickass” heroine. Don’t get me wrong, I love those girls, but I think it’s important to show the quieter kind of strength and endurance that Laia has in this book as well. Elias on the other hand, doesn’t really seem to change much throughout the book, he spends most of his time being angsty about one thing or another and whilst that’s fine and totally believable for a teenage boy, it just wasn’t that fun to read about. I felt like both of them were kind of flat, reliant on one or two characters traits and there wasn’t really anything about either of them that pulled me in.
I also felt that the world building was very limited. As I talked about in a recent Jo Talks post, I don’t really picture things in my head when I read, so that’s not really an issue, but even if I did, there was barely anything to picture here. We are given barely any markers as to what the world looks like and although we are given maps at the beginning, most of the action takes place at Blackcliff anyway. We get that the Scholars are the conquered, and the Martials are the conquerors and vague descriptors of other groups in society, but when it comes to how the world was established or any kind of detail to do with it, we don’t really get that.
I get that Tahir wanted to create a brutal world, but I hated the fact that rape was used as a plot device. Whenever she wants to signify that someone is a bad guy, they attempt to rape someone. The female slaves are constantly threatened, as is Helene, and I just don’t think that it was necessary. We are often told, more than shown that the world is brutal, we hear second hand about things that the Commandant has done, and things the characters have experienced.
I did like that the world was diverse, many of the lead characters are POC which is great to see in a fantasy novel.
When it came to the romance in this book, I got very frustrated. We essentially have two love triangles, Elias/Laia/Keenan and Elias/Laia/Helene and honestly neither of them were necessary. Elias has barely known Laia a few days and suddenly he’s desperate to protect her? Also he is willing to kill his best friend of over a decade for a girl he’s known a couple of weeks? No. No. No. The Helene/Elias pairing could have had some legs in it, given that the two of them have been friends for years, but I honestly wish Tahir had left that one at friendship because WE NEED MORE PLATONIC MALE/FEMALE FRIENDSHIPS IN YA. Elias and Helene could have been such a great one, but of course there had to be something romantic there. Laia and Elias’ relationship also has veins of the slave/master trope, which is never a comfortable one to read, even if she is there as a spy.
Generally the chapter lengths were okay, but there were some chapters, especially in the first half that were overly long for me. The book in general felt like it ran overly long, it was over 400 pages and it felt like there were only really about 350-360 pages of story.
For a fantasy novel, this book didn’t really feel fantastical enough for me. There’s very little magic, aside from a few supernatural creatures and the Augurs who are able to read minds and not die. But there’s no foundation for these in the book, so they just feel as if they don’t fit. It honestly felt like it would have worked better as a dystopia than a fantasy, at least for me.
I would have loved to have seen more of Helene, for all the talk of Elias being an awesome warrior, Helene is constantly saving his butt, and I feel like her POV would be very interesting as a woman surviving in a male dominated world. For me, I actually felt like the side characters like Cook, and Izzi, and Helene, and The Commandant, were more interesting than Elias and Laia. I’m particularly dying to know Cook’s backstory!
I felt like the villains were a bit flat. Marcus was really just flat out evil, with no depth or complexity to him. The Commandant had more potential and we do get hints at her backstory, but I wish her motivations had been explored a bit more throughout, rather than just one conversation with Elias at the end. I also wish her relationship with Elias had been explored more, because I think that has the potential to be very interesting and we only really scratched the surface of it in this book.
Considering all the gender stereotyping in this book, and the general established beliefs about women in this world, there’s a lot that doesn’t make sense. Like the most powerful person at Blackcliff & the one in charge of the army is a woman, yet the world believes that women are inferior? Also a girl is chosen for the Trials, so they will consider having an Empress, yet they hate women? Don’t get me wrong, I love women in power, but within the internal logic of the world, it doesn’t make sense.
The whole idea of the Trials, also lacks logic, when there are plenty of adults that would probably want the job of Emperor, why choose from a group of barely graduated teenagers? The Trials themselves are also quite predictable, and we barely get to see what happens in them because Elias (despite supposedly being a good warrior) is either knocked out, delirious, or refusing to take part in most of them. They also don’t really test the kids’ ability to lead, rather just their ability to be brutal and whilst I’m sure that is an essential part of being Emperor/Empress in this world, I’m sure there’s more to the job than that and they don’t really test any of the other skills that would make someone a good leader.
The writing was decent enough, there were some nice passages, but nothing that made me completely fall in love with the book.
Overall, this book just didn’t live up to the hype for me. There was definite potential, and I think I will still read onto the sequel, but the characters and the world building fell somewhat flat to me, I found it hard to relate to the characters and the world definitely needed to be a lot more fleshed out.
My Rating: 3/5
My next review will be of my latest Netgalley read Speak, which I’m almost done with, it should probably be up midway through the month.