Title: An Ember in the Ashes
Author: Sabaa Tahir
Publication Date: 27th April 2015
Rating: 5/5 stars
Thank you to Harper Voyager for sending me this book to review!
For years Laia has lived in fear. Fear of the Empire, fear of the Martials, fear of truly living at all. Born as a Scholar, she’s never had much of a choice.
For Elias, it’s the opposite. He has seen too much on his path to becoming a Mask, one of the Empire’s elite soldiers. With the Masks’ help the Empire has conquered a continent and enslaved thousands of Scholars, all in the name of power.
When Laia’s brother is taken she must force herself to help the Resistance, the only people who have a chance of saving him. She must spy on the Commandant, ruthless overseer of Blackcliff Academy. Blackcliff is the training ground for Masks and the very place that Elias is planning to escape. If he succeeds, he will be named deserter. If found, the punishment will be death.
But once Laia and Elias meet, they find that their destinies are intertwined and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire.
In the ashes of a broken world one person can make a difference. One voice in the dark can be heard. The price of freedom is always high and this time that price might demand everything, even life itself.
This is a difficult book to review, because I adored it so much. The characters, the world, the plot, the danger, the magic – this book has so many intertwining elements, all of which are executed perfectly.
Action starts from the first chapter – within the first 35 pages, three characters are killed. Laia’s home is invaded by Martials seeking her brother. By the end of the chapter, Laia is homeless and alone, determined to find the Resistance for help. When she finds them, accidentally, she is caught up in the task of espionage, spying on the dangerous Commandant of Blackcliff Academy.
The Commandant is first introduced as the perpetrator of the third character’s death, a young boy who has been caught (and therefore) executed after an attempted desertion from the Academy. We meet her through Elias, who is horrified by the world he lives in, and is determined to escape himself. There is a link between the Commandant and Elias, and although it is introduced early enough to not really be a spoiler, I liked finding it out for myself.
The two voices are incredibly well-executed. Neither character’s chapters drag on, and it is such a great method for seeing this world from two very different perspectives. The world has Roman and Greek influences. While the Martial names are mostly taken from Latin (can I pretend my studies are useful now?), the rigorous and hierarchical training program reminded me very strongly of the Spartans. Yet, it is never too similar – it is still overwhelmingly novel and just pretty amazing!
There are Augurs too, prophetic ancient beings, based on those from Ancient Roman society. I really liked Cain – although he is incredibly ancient, he still has a bit of sass when talking to Elias. The augurs are the sorts of characters who provide important information in bits and pieces, and I absolutely love trying to guess what prophecies mean, and what will happen!
Elias’ friends are brilliant characters, particularly Helene, the first girl in many years to have survived the excruciating training Blackcliff students undergo. I didn’t like the small romance which emerged here – the platonic friendship at the beginning was great. However, it was a good example of what can go wrong when two parties don’t feel the same way.
I feared for the main characters’ lives more times than I can think – Tahir certainly doesn’t mollycoddle any of them. I do feel an extra major death may have enhanced the story – not that there weren’t any, so be warned – though there will probably be one in the next book! I love when an author can be ruthless with their characters – it keeps me on my toes!
There is a lot of violence, particularly in battle scenes, yet also with reference to rape. While there are no scenes depicting sexual violence outright, it is discussed almost flippantly by the Martial class and accepted by the Scholars as a way of life. Tahir uses Helene’s reaction, as a Martial and a woman, and her total fear of rape, as a way to confront the horrific issue. The total acceptance of its occurrence adds a layer of authenticity – it is not used for shock-value, but rather to explore the rifts between classes in a world where power is everything.
If my own love for the novel doesn’t convince you, the story has already been optioned by Paramount Pictures in a seven-figure movie deal. It an amazing debut, and I cannot wait for the next books in the series. I am so excited to see where Tahir takes all the characters next, though terrified at the same time for their lives!