After a stressful and busy week, it feels great to complete a long review of a book I enjoyed more than I originally anticipated! Hopefully I can knock out some more for you all before the week ends and get started on the galley books that have started to pile up on my Kindle app. If you’ve read this before, let me know what you think in the comments below!
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.
Sabaa Tahir’s debut was much better than I expected from this kind of story. I don’t know very much about Ancient Rome, but the basic history of the book is a common theme amongst modern YA fantasy: rebels/slaves vs. the rich, powerful race/nation that took over the previous owners’ land and exploited them (see: The Winner’s Curse, Snow Like Ashes), plus the good ol’ forbidden love between said competing groups. Now, I’m not saying this is any different than what we’ve all seen before, but for a common, simple plot, it had a remarkably rich story that had me hooked from the first chapter on.
What I Liked: Firstly, main characters that didn’t feel like stereotypes or two-dimensional. I very much enjoyed how fully fleshed out the two protagonists (and some side characters!) felt as a whole. The dual point of view was also a huge advantage for developing each character, which I found quite surprising – I’ve found in the past that having 2 stories at once makes the overall book more complicated (one of my biggest issues with Heir of Fire was how SJM handled 3 stories at the same time not very well), but Tahir discovered a fine balance between Laia and Elias, executed well and without overwhelming the reader in any way. I am personally a huge sucker for foreshadowing: the particular art of not giving away major plot points, yet also keeping readers at the edge of their seats. The anticipation for what’s going to happen next made An Ember in the Ashes a page-turner through and through.
Tahir made the biggest difference for me by staying true to the code of the Masks in a way recent assassin-themed books didn’t – people die. And by die, I mean they are brutally murdered. It was dark and painful, cruel and so, so sad to watch happen to these characters. Maybe I’m just morbid, but the writing for the Tasks (especially the final one) was so well done and had me gasping until the very last page.
Mixed Feelings: There was a lot of controversy around the rape issue in the book, specifically the Commandant disfiguring slave girls so they’d be less likely to get raped, and just the overall low opinion of women and the resignation with which rape in the academy is dealt with. Obviously, we are seeing a lot about rape cases in the news lately, and this narrative of “it happens but no one says anything so we’re just going to ignore it for the most part” is extremely problematic for young readers. Personally, there wasn’t as much of a focus on it as I was led to believe from others’ reviews, but it is still an issue that deserves serious conversation in the field of YA literature.
Other, smaller things I had mixed feelings about were Laia’s writing and the Resistance as a whole. I know that I just said Laia was a profoundly well-rounded character, but what I (again, on a personal level) had an issue with was how weak her character is. It’s a change from the Strong Female Protagonist™ we are seeing a ton of in contemporary lit, and I can understand why people find her so much more relatable than other female protagonists in the genre, but there is a difference between being weakened and being weak. I’m much more inclined to like a character with obvious growth potential instead of one who doesn’t use her head.
What I Disliked: For a book with such a detailed map on the first page, there was a serious lack of world building outside of Blackcliff. We are given only the bare minimum of information about the Scholars and the Martials, with little to no backstory on what they’re even like as people or where Blackcliff came from and, most importantly, what the hell the masks are. How do they work? What do they look like? I want details, dammit!
Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the recent mythology-heavy fantasy I’ve been reading lately, but there was so very little about the magic aspect in this book that made some of the ‘big reveals’ really disappointing. It seems like the jinn, efrits, wraiths, and the Nightbringer especially would be major players, but they are given zero explanation aside from old folktales people tell to Laia that she assumed were myths. I’m going to assume we will see a lot more out of the fantasy creatures like the Nightbringer in A Torch Against the Night, and cross my fingers that they’ll be given the time and detailed explanation they deserve.
Although I have conflicting opinions about varied parts of the novel, overall, I’m really impressed with Tahir’s debut. There is a lot of potential for character and plot growth, and even by itself, it’s a gripping, fast-paced story that will hold your attention from start to finish. I’ll be picking up the sequel as soon as I can this August.