By: Sabaa Tahir
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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.
Spoiler Free Thoughts
This book though. Like, seriously, this book. This book. I had heard so many positive things about this book before I finally decided to go out and buy it, hoping that it’d live up to the expectations, and as soon as I started reading it, I knew that the hype was all completely definitely worth it. In AN EMBER IN THE ASHES, Sabaa Tahir has crafted an extremely vivid and interesting fantasy world, filled with characters and places which only serve to add in details which never seem to be unnecessary. Everything about this book felt natural, and it has to be said that Sabaa doesn’t, in any way, read like a debut author. Her writing style is strong and confident, it takes risks and pulls them off wonderfully, and completely absorbs you into the world.
The narrative is told through alternating first person POV’s, between Laia, who works as a spy for the Resistance under the promise that they will help her save her brother from the Empire, and Elias, who plans on deserting the Empire after spending most of his life being trained to be unflinchingly loyal to the Empire.
The plot itself is fairly complex at the beginning of the novel, and within the first few chapters we are thrust into the middle of massive plot-developments and tensions, so for me it was quite difficult to really navigate what was happening as well as who everyone was and what their purpose in the story was, but in less than a hundred pages it becomes quite easy to get to grips with what is going on. So if you’re at the beginning and struggling to hang onto the story, just keep going! Once you hit around the eightieth page, you’ll be hooked, I promise!
There isn’t much more I can say about this book without getting into spoiler-territory, so all I can urge you to do now is read this book if you haven’t, because regardless of your favoured genres, this book will take you on a journey that you’re not likely to forget!
Laia and Elias are two characters who come from completely different backgrounds, who are driven by completely different factors, and who are treated by society in completely different ways. But, in more than a few ways, they are exactly the same. They are both fighting against a corrupt and broken world, both doing all they can to keep from falling apart. When the novel opens, Laia’s grandparents are killed by the Empire, and her brother, Darin, is taken captive by a Mask while she escapes, cursing herself for not staying behind to help Darin in any way she could. She eventually runs into the Resistance, who promise her that if she helps them by spying on the Commandant of the famous Blackcliff Academy. She agrees, but quickly learns that being a slave for the evil Commandant isn’t as easy as she thought it might be, and nor is spying for the Resistance. Elias, on the other hand, opens the novel the day before graduating from Blackcliff Academy, where he has spent the majority of his life training to be a Mask (an elite soldier for the Empire), and is planning on deserting. Immediately following his graduation from the Academy, he is chosen as an Aspirant, and will compete in a series of Trials against three of his fellow students of Blackcliff, including his life-long best friend Helene, in order to determine who will be the next Emperor.
One of the things that I particularly enjoyed about the altering narrative chapters of this book was that, although Elias and Laia do interact on a few occasions, they aren’t constantly together, and that they both followed their own individual stories. It’s not a huge thing, but after reading a few books with shifting narratives where the characters all follow the same plot, it was interesting to have, effectively, two plots in the one book, both beautifully written in their own unique ways. We have Laia, who is under the strict service of the Commandant, and while she tries to find information to relay back to the Resistance, she learns the meaning of bravery and friendship, which contrasts fantastically with Elias. He spends the novel battling his desire to be free of the Empire and its violent, immoral acts, while at the same time competing in the trials and being seen by society as a dangerous, yet prestigious, figure. Through the trials he is shown what true loyalty is, as well as learning the price of freedom.
As I said at the beginning, the only really downfall for me was the beginning. It was a little difficult for me to really follow what was going on with the plot advancing so quickly in the first few chapters, and with some of the factors not being explained as much as I think they could have been. It took me a while to really figure out what a Mask was, and what the different ‘Quarters’ of the town meant. Once you pick up on what everything is, it becomes a lot easier to read and understand, and there’s every chance that other people will get it easier than I did.
The end of the novel is one of the strongest parts for me. Elias has lost the Trials, and is set to be executed, meanwhile Laia has discovered that the leader of the Resistance is just as corrupt as the Empire, and never planned to help her save Darin. She has also passed off her closest chance at getting to her brother in order to give her friend and fellow slave Izzi her own chance at freedom. Laia rescues Elias from being executed, and together they escape the Academy and the city, and plan to head towards Kauf, where Darin is being held and tortured.
I had heard so many many many positive reviews about this book before going into it, and I thought after the first few chapters that it wasn’t possibly going to live up to the hype. Then I spent a couple of days glued to this book, and every time I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it, wondering what was happening, and planning on reading more of it as soon as I came into reach of it. I loved this book, if you can’t tell. And, as only recently announced, there IS going to be a sequel, thanks to the massive amount of support for the book and the insanely positive feedback. I already can’t wait for this sequel, regardless of the fact that it’s going to be at least a year, maybe even two, before it comes out! Oh well, it’s something to look forward to, right?