An Ember in the Ashes: Review

April 29, 2015 4 star books, fantasy, Layla, Sabaa Tahir 34 ★★★★

An Ember in the Ashes: ReviewAn Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
Published by Penguin, Razorbill on April 28, 2015
Genres: fantasy
Pages: 464 pages
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
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AN EMBER IN THE ASHES is a thought-provoking, heart-wrenching and pulse-pounding read. Set in a rich, high-fantasy world with echoes of ancient Rome, it tells the story of a slave fighting for her family and a young soldier fighting for his freedom.

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.

I couldn’t put Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes down. This is a statement of fact: I picked it up late at night when I couldn’t sleep, started reading, and had to force myself to go to bed approximately 300 pages later. (Wendy can vouch for me here as the lucky recipient of some early morning “OH MY GOD THIS IS SO GOOD” texts. Hopefully she didn’t mind too much because she liked it, too!) I can’t remember the last time this happened and it was excellent. It reminded me of how I felt about reading as a teenager, which is to say that I was engrossed in Sabaa Tahir’s imaginary world.

And that is basically what I want to reiterate, now that An Ember in the Ashes is out and ready and waiting to keep you up at night. Oh my God, you guys. This book is so good. It’s not a perfect book (more on that later) but it is a totally captivating read. (And yes, fair warning, it is dark and violent and terrifying, but that never felt gratuitous to me, though your mileage may vary).

The story follows the narratives of Laia and Elias, who are members of two different social classes (Scholars and Martials, respectively) in a fantasy world inspired by imperial Rome. Laia’s living in an oppressive, militarized society, and just wants to stay safe – until her brother is taken by the Martials. She joins up with a revolutionary faction that promises to rescue her brother if she takes an incredibly risky job. They ask her to work as a slave and super-secret spy in the Commandant of Blackcliff’s household. The Commandant, who also happens to be Elias’s mother, is a sadist who regularly dehumanizes, tortures, and executes slaves at Blackcliff. So … the job seems very much like a death-sentence for Laia from the get-go, but it’s her only hope to rescue her brother. Can she trust the Resistance? Can she hide her true purposes at Blackcliff? Can she ferret out enough information to save her brother?

On the other hand, Elias is just about to finish his training as a Mask (selective and highly skilled warriors) at Blackcliff. He has no desire to actually become a Mask, though, and plans to desert immediately following his graduation. Unfortunately for him, though, he’s named an Aspirant in the upcoming Trials that are used to test the mettle of a new emperor. He vows to see the Trials through, but still has an eye out for ways he can escape the Empire and finally gain his freedom.

What I liked about this book: first-off, the narrative style of the book really worked for me. The book alternates between Laia and Elias’s voices, which kept me engaged pretty actively in the story. (They are both in peril all the time, so I had to keep reading!) I suspect it’s actually quite difficult to sustain this level of constant apprehension without exhausting your reader, so hats off to Sabaa Tahir – I really liked this aspect of An Ember in the Ashes.

Secondly, I loved Laia; she’s definitely one of my favorite female heroines to emerge from YA literature in the past year or so. Her emotional development from the novel’s beginning to end is a beautiful thing to behold: while she is initially tortured by her seeming cowardice in relationship to the rest of her family, by the end of the novel, she’s risking life and limb for what she believes in. What is more important, however, is that she gains a stronger sense of self and a stronger commitment to her own goals and ideals. I tend to like heroines who struggle with their relationship to their families, and Laia does this by struggling with her relationship to her family’s legacy. They’re fighters and revolutionaries, and Laia – at first – just wants to keep her family safe and whole.

Elias’s struggle is similar. Both Laia and Elias are bound together by their conflicted relationship to their families – for Laia, this means thinking about what it means for her to be the daughter of revolutionaries; for Elias, it means thinking about his family’s military and political legacy, his mother’s brutality, and (in particular) what it means for him to be an ethical leader. I’ve also been thinking about this a bit since Rosamund Hodge’s post for the Crimson Bound blog tour on Strong Female Characters, but I was struck by how both Laia and Elias sort through their relationship to their respective families by redefining what it means for them to be strong. (Laia, for example, at the close of the novel, thinks that she is “the Lioness’s Daughter, and has the Lioness’s strength,” while learning when to act, while Elias, on the other hand, figures out when he is not willing to act.)

Last thing I loved, which I suspect is the result of reading Harry Potter during my formative years: man, I will happily read anything that takes me through a series of trials. I love it. I don’t know why. But I love reading about tests, and always want … more tests. (This is probably why I’m still in graduate school.)

While I really enjoyed this book (and highly recommend it! everyone should read it!), it wasn’t totally perfect for me. I wanted the ending to be slowed down; the action is fast-paced all the way through, but the book reaches a breakneck pace by the end, and I felt occasionally overwhelmed and confused. In addition – and this is usually true for me – I could have done with less romance. The confusion that both Elias and Laia have with regards to their potential romantic interests felt very true to me (they’re both attracted to more than one person which is, you know, totally normal) but I still wanted less of a love quadrangle? pentagon? I didn’t feel like there was space in the text to actually develop all of these relationships fully – especially with everything else that’s going on. View Spoiler »

In any case: Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes is a wonderfully engaging, immersive read. Give it a try if you’re interested in fantasy, classical Rome, revolution, and teenagers who are figuring out who they want to be in the world. I loved it. I hope you do, too.

Have you read this one yet? If so, what’d you think?

layla signature teal

An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.

Further Reading:

Wendy’s Mini Review
An Ember in the Ashes trailer feature
5 Great Book-to-Movie Adaptations with Sabaa Tahir


34 Responses to “An Ember in the Ashes: Review”

  1. Cindy Van Wilder

    Same as you, it was a very enjoyable and solid read :) I do love the universe developed, a welcome change from medieval settings with a great majority of white characters, as well as the sensuality of some scenes – without spoiling anything! I must admit I was sometimes irritated by Elias’ behavior, especially when Helene is involved – for someone so clever, it takes him an amazing long time to find out how she really feels towards him!
    Anyway, I’ll be sure to get my hands on the sequel.
    Cindy Van Wilder recently posted…Friday Recommendations – Round 1

  2. Jenny Manca

    I’m in the middle of listening to the audiobook and so far I am loving it but I do feel that sometimes the author relies to heavily on caricatures of villains instead of really giving depth to the baddies. That won’t stop me from having my earbuds in my ears 24/7! :)

    • Layla

      I realllllllllly enjoyed it. I stayed up late reading that! Along with Uprooted (which Kim recommended, like a person who knows my soul), it’s one of the two books that have kept me up way past my bedtime. I have pretty much pulled an all-nighter with both. Which is not how I generally behave as an adult. :)

      The romance is just “meh” to me. It isn’t super irritating, I just wasn’t really invested in any of the relationships except Elias / Helene’s (because it gets the most time in the text).

      I hope you enjoy it if / when you read it!
      Layla recently posted…Top Ten Tuesday (1): Ten Books I Will Probably Never Read

  3. Faye le Potato

    I sadly didn’t like this one as much :( I gave it three stars overall, but I generally felt meh towards it. But I’m glad you did, though! Every book is not for everyone, and sometimes it just clicks with you! I do agree that there should have been less romance and more plot. It was weird for me to see Elias getting turned on by both Helene and Laia o_O And Keenan wasn’t even shown that much at all, more like 2 page snippets each time. Hopefully the next book will put this in the backseat, or at least, make it more certain who is end game because the love square just makes my head hurt!
    Faye le Potato recently posted…[Blog Tour]: The Truth Commission by Susan Juby

    • Layla

      Totally agreed. Readers are different, and that’s awesome! There’d be no point in blogging if we all felt the same way about every book. Anyway. :) I feel like the book’s endgame is probably Laia / Elias – I’d be very surprised if something else happened, so, given that, I’d be totally fine with Keenan stepping out of the picture (I don’t mind love triangles, but I do mind them when they’re superfluous – which this didn’t *necessarily* seem to be, it’s just hard for me to tell at this point because we’ve received so little exposure to Keenan / Laia’s relationship).
      Layla recently posted…Top Ten Tuesday (1): Ten Books I Will Probably Never Read

  4. Carina Olsen

    Gorgeous review Layla :) I’m glad you liked this book a lot. I’ve seen such great things about it :D And while I think the plot sounds AMAZING, I’m too worried about the damn romance :( I can’t stand any love triangle hints. This one sounds REALLY BAD. And it isn’t even decided by the end of the book. Seriously. I’m mad about it, lol. So still considering if I shall read this book or not :p Sigh. But maybe. Anyway. Glad you liked it a lot :D
    Carina Olsen recently posted…Review: Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone

    • Layla

      Yeah, I know you’re not a fan of the love triangle in general, so I’m pretty certain you will dislike the way it plays out here. Still, the rest of the book is pretty excellent! I wasn’t super into the romance – I rarely am, I guess – but everything else more than made up for it. The writing is really good, the world-building is well-developed, and the plot / pacing were totally snappy and I looooved it. Hopefully, the romance won’t destroy this one for you but I understand that it might!
      Layla recently posted…A Court of Thorns and Roses: Review

      • Carina Olsen

        Damn it. I had hoped you would tell me it isn’t such a big deal with the romance, lol :D No such luck. Ugh. Damn it :( But oh, the rest sounds so awesome. And I’m so glad you loved the rest of the book :D But yesss. The romance might ruin it for me, sadly :( Still trying to decide if I want to read this book or not now, lol. Soon. Probably :)
        Carina Olsen recently posted…Review: A Whole New World by Liz Braswell

  5. Nikki

    I had pre-ordered this book so I’m so glad it’s out now so I can read it! I haven’t heard many bad reviews on it yet.

    • Layla

      I’ve seen a few reviews for it that were negative – and I can see why people might, though I enjoyed it immensely. If you read it, let me know how you feel about it! Glad you have your copy in hand after a long wait.
      Layla recently posted…A Court of Thorns and Roses: Review

  6. Pili @ In Love With Handmade

    Oooooh!! Now after reading your review I’m even more excited to start reading my copy as soon as it bloody well arrives on the mail! Hopefully next week!
    I’m very happy to read that you loved the characters and their growth and evolution and Laia really sounds like a main character that I’d totally love!
    A can’t-put-it-down book is exactly what I need to distract me while I wait for everything to be done with paperwork and bureocracy and get my apartment keys, because it’s killing me!!
    I’m a bit concerned about the romance, but if the book ended up still being a 4 stars for you, I think I’d be able to handle it!
    Great review Layla!
    Pili @ In Love With Handmade recently posted…Waiting On Wednesday #92!!

    • Layla

      Fingers crossed for you! How’s all the apartment stuff going? I think this is a good book to read if you’re in need of a distraction, even if you feel iffy about the romance. It’s still pretty engrossing! And hard to put down! Hopefully, if you get it in time, it’ll take your mind off things.

      The romance was the weakest part of the book for me, but I have high hopes that it’ll be better in the next book. There just wasn’t enough space to develop those relationships here, so I kind of wasn’t convinced that I should be shipping any of them. Also like, there is tons of other stuff going on! I’ll wait until the next book (which is going to happen, I know it in my bones) to figure out how I feel about this. :)
      Layla recently posted…A Court of Thorns and Roses: Review

  7. Kristen@My Friends Are Fiction

    Yes! I’m so happy you really enjoyed this one. I thought it was so well done esp for a debut. I DEMAND a sequel. Come on Penguin, announce it already! I must know where things go because, for me, that wasn’t the way to leave the characters forever. I totally agree with you on all your points.
    Kristen@My Friends Are Fiction recently posted…Another ARC Giveaway

    • Layla

      Oh, absolutely! I thought this was really impressive, particularly for a debut novel. Good world-building, which I suspect isn’t easy to do on the first go-round, but Tahir does it marvelously.

      SEQUEL PLEASE. I mean, I think / hope it’ll happen. The book’s ending absolutely prepares for it. The stage is set! Plans are in motion! We just need the actual sequel to be announced.

      Like I said, though, if this doesn’t happen, I will be scouring AO3 for all the fanfiction I can find. :)
      Layla recently posted…A Court of Thorns and Roses: Review

      • janice

        I finished this book a couple of days ago and stayed up all night in order to do so!! Tried to force myself to go to bed but it didn’t work. I absolutely agree with you on Laia as a strong female heroine. I adore watching characters’ ethics and mores grow throughout a book and Laia’s journey was really satisfying. Both Laia and Elias’ mettle were tested over and over again and they learned more about themselves each time (I like tests, too!), finally emerging with a clear sense of who they want to be.

        I was also really invested in Elias and Helene’s relationship. Even though I knew what the ending would be for them, I still rebelled against it while I was reading it. I hope the second book gets them back together as friends because I agree, it seems that Elias and Laia are the end-game. If Elias and Helene can’t be paired up, I, at the very least, want their friendship to remain intact!!
        janice recently posted…What Happens When an Impatient Person Bakes Cookies

  8. Kate

    I read this book in one sitting. Okay, I did use the washroom twice but my husband brought me food to eat so I could continue to read while shoving food in my face with one hand.

    I think your review is bang on (for me), although I liked all of the romance!! I agree though, that because of the love quadrangle, some relationships weren’t really explored (so they fell a little flat). Maybe in the next book? There better be a next book; why hasn’t this been locked down yet? Anyhoo, I did enjoy the complicated feelings everyone had for everyone because, as you pointed out, that is just how life works. I have a crush on every all of the time!

    Laia is my favourite type of herione. I liked her resourcefulness. I liked her bravery (without being eye-rolling undaunted). I liked that she was curious, thoughtful, and determined. I was routing for her from the start and she worked hard. Things didn’t come easy to her and she succeeded because worked hard, not because she’s ‘special’ or ‘chosen’ (Hermione Granger style). I enjoyed the friendships she develops with the other slaves.

    I did feel the end felt rushed (the last trial felt really quick), but this is possibly because I noticed I was coming towards the end of the book and I didn’t want it to end.

    • Layla

      Your husband gets mad props for enabling you to read this in one sitting. (It’s hard to do things like feed yourself when you just want to readdddd. Man, do I know that feel.)

      Yeah, in theory, I don’t mind the love quadrangle at all. I too am one of those people who is like crushing on everyone all the time, and I totally support books that portray that as a reasonable and normal thing. I just really wanted more space in the book to develop all of these relationships. Like, with rebel dude who’s name I have forgotten! Or with Laia and Elias, even? I suspect that we’ll get more of them together in the next book (which had better happen, or I will be writing fanfiction forever), but at this point, the only relationship I felt was complicated and interesting was Elias and Helene’s.

      I know! And she changes and develops as a character! She’s much more interesting to me in that way than Elias is (he is a tiny bit more special and chosen than Laia, and blargh, I liked being inside his head way less).
      Layla recently posted…A Court of Thorns and Roses: Review

      • Kate

        How bloody nice is it to read a story about someone who isn’t chosen!! This is my #1 pet peeve lately, so I’m extra ranty about it. Elias was a wee bit chosen, but he is super sweet and moral, so I’ll forgive him for his ‘specialness’. But Laia, yeah, I was rooting for her and was absorbed in her journey.

        I also forgot rebel dude’s name… I mean, I could totally see why he was attractive, but… what was his name? The fact that I don’t remember his name is telling. I want to see it was something like Rhys, but I know that it was absolutely not Rhys (but he gave me a Rhys vibe. Ronan? Something like that). And I am all over that stuff (rebel, redhead – I should remember him).

        I also totally adored Laia’s conflicted feelings about her rebel superstar parents. It was pretty interesting stuff and I’m excited to learn about about their history (and how it will influence Laia).

        And yes, I mean, how can there not be more books??!?! Penguin – take my money!!!!!!!! Or yes, I will be writing really awkward fanfic.

    • Layla

      Right? I was really absorbed by it. (I could not put the book down.) It’s crazy that Tahir is a debut author – I thought the world-building in this was really well done and the story was incredibly gripping.

      Glad you loved it too!
      Layla recently posted…A Court of Thorns and Roses: Review

  9. Mary @ BookSwarm

    I definitely could have done with less romance but YESSS!! This story was ridiculously hard to put down. I got completely caught up in the world and with the characters. I’ve heard that there may not be another book…? I’m going to be sad if that’s true — not that the book didn’t end well but that I want to know more, want more of the MCs journey, more of Tahir’s writing!!
    Mary @ BookSwarm recently posted…Pre-Squee: Legacy of Kings by Eleanor Herman

    • Layla

      Yeah, and it’s not that I have a problem with love quadrangles or whatever in theory, I just didn’t think that there was space in this particular book to really flesh out all of those relationships. So, even though I suspect Elias and Laia are end game, I didn’t feel like I understood their connection all that well (I mean, how much time do they actually get to spend together? Not much! Because they are fighting for their lives all the time). At this point, I’m shipping Elias and Helene (and also kinda secretly wishing we got some story from Helene’s viewpoint, because her character arc was super interesting to me).

      The stage has obviously been set for a sequel. So I hope it happens! I didn’t feel like the end of the book was particularly cliff-hangery, but like, these characters have developed and I want to see what they do next!
      Layla recently posted…A Court of Thorns and Roses: Review

  10. kindlemom1

    This is another one of those that I have been seeing everywhere and wish I would have given it a second glance, dang it! So happy you really enjoyed this. Wonderful review! :D
    kindlemom1 recently posted…WoW Pick of the Week!

    • Layla

      Yesssss, it’s really good! I had so much fun reading it (not that it’s a particularly fun world to inhabit, but I was totally wrapped up in the experience of reading this one). If you have a chance to read it, don’t pass it up! You should definitely give this one a shot, I think. :)
      Layla recently posted…A Court of Thorns and Roses: Review

  11. Brenda

    I’ve been hearing wonderful things about the world building and characters. Glad to see you enjoyed it so much. I really want to read An Ember in the Ashes, but I really want to know if things are tied up at the end. It’s so hard for me going into a book knowing that I’m not going to be able to put it down only to find out that it might end on a cliffhanger or that I’m really going to want the next book now. So, I really hope this isn’t the case. I was one of those people who got into Harry Potter late, I got to read the books slowly, even re-read them a few times as the next one was coming out. But waiting for the last book was torture. But after reading your review, I’m defiantly more eager too read it now.

    • Layla

      I did really enjoy this one, and am very much looking forward to the sequel. Tahir is a debut author, so I expect that her next book will be even better than this one (and I thought this one was all kinds of awesome).

      Hmmm, so I will say that things are both tied up and not. I don’t think the second book has been picked up yet (why why why), and so the first book ends with a lot of unresolved storylines, but it’s not super cliffhanger-y. It’s really setting the stage for the next book. I think, from the ending, you’re able to tell where things in the second book are going to go, but it isn’t done in a way that made me feel like this particular book hadn’t come to an ending, either. Augh, I’m sorry if that’s not a particularly satisfying answer? It’s mostly to say: not everything is resolved, but you hopefully shouldn’t feel super frantic about it.

      Anyway, if you do choose to read it, I hope you like it! (And aren’t driven crazy waiting for the second book to come out. :))
      Layla recently posted…A Court of Thorns and Roses: Review

  12. Tara @ The Librarian Who Doesn't Say Shhh!

    I’ve been seeing this one everywhere but really haven’t given it much thought (probably because I’m a bit overwhelmed with school lately). But after reading this I think I might request it from the library for summer reading. I really need a “can’t put it down” type book after all this heavy theory I’ve been reading!
    Tara @ The Librarian Who Doesn’t Say Shhh! recently posted…Bookish Photography

    • Layla

      I found it pretty un-put-downable. I was up waaaaaay past my bedtime, and since I cherish sleep above all, that’s saying something. If you want a copy for summer reading, you’re welcome to borrow mine since we live in the same city! (Did you not get a copy at NCTE? I think Summer and Ashley both did.)

      I’ll be interested in hearing what you think about it. It isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty engrossing.
      Layla recently posted…A Court of Thorns and Roses: Review