Author: Sabaa Tahir
Series: An Ember in the Ashes #1
Blurb: 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'd rather die than live with no mercy, no honor, no soul."
This book is brutal. It's right there in the blurb but I didn't really believe it until I started reading. It goes a lot further and a lot darker than I could have expected. Characters do things that would normally seem unforgivable but over and over again I rooted for them against all odds. Every so often something would happen and I'd think "there's no way this is real, there's some trick, some mind games going on" but nope. It was happening.
Laia is more or less the opposite of how I usually like my characters. At the beginning she was a self-acknowledge coward and throughout the book she insisted on trusting people who definitely should not have been trusted! She wasn't strong in the way of Celaena or Katniss. But by the end of the book I found myself admiring her anyway. She was her own kind of strong. She endured so much throughout the book and she kept going. She didn't break, she became stronger. And it takes a special kind of person to do that after what she went through.
Elias was a good character but I don't love him in the same way I do Laia. I felt for him as he was put through impossible situation after impossible situation. There was no real choice or freedom for him. Ironically, Laia the slave probably had more freedom in her decision making than he did. His friendship with Helene was one of the more intriguing parts of the book and Helene herself is actually the kind of character I usually love. She was very tough and determined but her attitudes were sometimes incredibly faulty and the way she treated Laia didn't really endear her to me.
Anyone who knows me, knows that I love a good villain. The better and more sinister a villain is the more I love the book. And here, we were given a few different choices. The two main villains were the Commandant and Marcus. The Commandant was great in a President Snow had a love child with Bellatrix Lestrange kind of way. She was cold, and cruel and she sent chills down my spine in every scene she was in. And I loved it. Marcus was sinister in a whole different way. He's the sort of man we've probably all met at some point in our lives and every scene he was in made me feel sort of weak and helpless. Where the Commandant made me want to encourage the characters to fight he made me want them to run!
The world building in An Ember in the Ashes was excellent. There were maps at the beginning (who doesn't love maps?) and the world within the book was developed and revealed in a way that didn't feel like exposition which was great. There was some history to grasp but it helped that pretty much every set of people had a simple name - The Scholars, The Tribesmen. They are what they say on the tin pretty much which made it easy for me to keep a handle on and remember everything. It will also, hopefully, mean that when book 2 is released I can leap straight back in to the world with no confusion. There was an element of the supernatural but it wasn't as prevalent as I had expected at times. I feel like the magical elements may become more important in the second book.
Plot wise this kept me guessing. With so many characters and so many hidden motivations the last part of the book was a whirlwind of revelations and action. I raced through this book and there was never a single moment where I was bored or losing interest. There was quite a bit of violence and there was definitely an element of nobody-is-really-safe which, although stressful, made for a very exciting read. At times it seemed like every time I got attached to a character they'd promptly come to some horrible end.
There was a dreaded love-triangle which kind of dragged the story down for me, but it wasn't hugely over played and only really became an issue towards the end of the story. At the moment I am not really sure which way the triangle is likely to be resolved but since neither Keenan nor Elias really grabbed me as love interests I am undecided which way I want it to go. Hopefully things will become clearer in the second book.
Laia's brother played a very small part in this book but, again, I am hoping he makes more of an appearance in A Torch Against the Night because he interested me and his relationship with Laia was likewise very interesting. I loved how he protected Laia at the beginning and I think he would be very surprised by the new battered but not beaten Laia.
I really enjoyed An Ember in the Ashes and it was definitely an intense, edge-of-your-seat kind of read. I would recommend it if you like fantasy or (and I know this gets said so much about books) The Hunger Games. It was, in some ways, actually more brutal than the Hunger Games and so I am a little scared to read A Torch Against the Night. As far as I am aware this is only a duology and book 2 is set for release in April 2016 and I have already pre-ordered it because I want to know, as soon as physically possible, how this story will resolve.