Hi everyone! Summer is finally upon us, which means a number of things–no homework! More ice cream! Trying not to melt in the all-consuming inferno that is summer heat! And more time for reading/blogging! Which is good, because I have a lot of reviewing to catch up on. And number one is An Ember in the Ashes, by Sabaa Tahir.
The book centers on Laia and Elias, who at first glance couldn’t be more different. Laia is a Scholar living with her grandparents and older brother, somehow managing to survive day-to-day under the brutal rule of the Martial Empire. Elias is the most accomplished student of Blackcliff Academy, where the Empire’s most deadly soldiers are trained. But despite his high status, Elias wants nothing more than to just escape.
When Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, she serves as a spy for the Scholar Resistance, going undercover at Blackcliff in exchange for their help in freeing Darin. It is here that she and Elias meet for the first time. But there’s trouble brewing at Blackcliff, and both Laia and Elias are confronted with much more danger than either of them imagined. This is especially true once the Trials to choose a new Emperor begin.
An Ember in the Ashes is one of those books that left me feeling totally bowled over and like I need to lay down for a while and simply absorb everything about it. (Seriously. On the outside I’m calm, but on the inside there is FLAILING.) So, without further ado, I’m going to try to break down everything in some sort of logical fashion:
An Ember in the Ashes is the first fantasy I’ve read in quite a while. But oh my god, what a fantasy.
The book is set in a fantasy world in which the Scholars have been conquered by the Martial Empire, led by Emperor Taius. The Scholars are brutally oppressed by the Empire, subjected to raids, murder, and slavery. It’s terrifying and violent, and Laia becomes part of fighting that when she agrees to help the Scholar Resistance. Of course, then she’s heading into the belly of the beast.
What struck me about the world of the book was how rich and detailed it was. I loved falling into it, learning more about the people’s lives and how everything worked. The Empire is perhaps the most brutal fantasy regime I’ve ever read about, but Tahir pulls it off in such a brilliant way, and I couldn’t help but be fascinated by Laia and Elias’s world. Everything is painted in such an interesting and detailed light that it just made it harder to put the book down. The courtyard of Blackcliff, the marketplace of Serra, the dunes that surround the school and the desert where the Tribes live. The magic and the setting are all so unique, not to mention non-Eurocentric, and it’s a place I can’t wait to read more about. I felt like these places were almost real, almost close enough to touch, and I loved it.
>deep breath< Okay, I am calm, I am calm.
The setting of the book isn’t the only thing that is filled with talent and detail–the characters get a fair share of it themselves. Tahir’s characters are almost living and breathing–they range from the brutal to the cryptic to the oh-my-god-let-me-hug-you variety, but each of them is so well-drawn and unique.
I loved reading about both Laia and Elias. The book is narrated in their alternating POVs, so we get to hear from them both. Laia is so scared at the start of the story, and understandably so–she’s terrified of what she has to do, and she has no idea how she’s ever going to pull this whole spying thing off. But she grows so much throughout the book, and watching that was such a great experience. Elias is also a well-done character, and I really liked that I got to see what it’s like to be a part of Blackcliff through the eyes of someone who’s a part of it, despite how much he wishes he wasn’t. Both of their voices are original and well-written, and I can’t wait to see more of them.
The side characters are also some of the best parts of the book. The Commandant of Blackcliff Academy is terrible–and I mean terrible. She’s brutal and cruel, but also still a character with depth and a story. I was fascinated by Cook, one of the slaves Laia meets at the school, and I also liked Keenan, one of the members of the Resistance that Laia works with. (But don’t mention Mazen to me because I have FEELINGS about Mazen.) (Also Marcus. Never ever mention Marcus. I could stab Markus in the EYE.)
And oh, Helene. I could write for ages about Helene. I could write essays on Helene. Helene is quite possibly the most complex character in the whole book. Unlike Elias, she believes wholeheartedly in the Empire and what it teaches them, but there’s also so much more to her than meets the eye. She’s his best friend, and the only female soldier at the Academy, but she is also full of emotions and skill (I only wish I could wield a sword as capably as Helene). She’s a mix of light and dark and she gives me so many feelings and I need to read more.
This plot. This plot blew my mind.
The thing about this book is that the stakes are higher than five Empire State Buildings stacked one on top of the other. Both Laia and Elias, as well as many of the other characters, are surrounded by danger–danger from the Martials, from their own friends, from other things that I don’t want to mention because SPOILERS. It is insane, and it makes it so hard to stop reading. The danger is one of the many things that made this book nearly impossible to put down.
But the mysteries were another thing I loved about the plot. This book is full of twists and turns, and there are secrets around every corner. I was dying to find out what everything meant, who Laia and Elias could trust, if they would ever actually kiss, if they would actually survive. I had to know what would happen next, and I could barely turn the pages fast enough. (There was also an angry yell at one point. I believe it was around page 389.)
I loved the action and the mystery, but I also loved the more subdued scenes and parts of the plot. The section where Laia attends the Scholar-held Moon Festival is definitely one of my favorites, and I loved the looks Tahir gives into the backstories of the characters and their relationships. She finds a wonderful balance between the dangerous, holy-crap-what-is-going-on scenes and the ones that occur in the spaces between those, where we get to see a little more of the characters, and hopefully catch our breath (right before getting it stolen again because THIS PLOT). I can’t remember ever being bored while reading this book. In short, the plot is A+++.
(You might think that there is a limit to how many things I can love about this book, but you’d be wrong.)
Tahir’s writing is another one of the great things about An Ember in the Ashes. She writes about the characters and the amazing fantasy world they live in without ever just dumping info on the reader or making it feel stilted. While I did feel a little disoriented in the fantasy setting for the first couple chapters, the confusion was quickly cleared up and after that there was no turning back. She draws the reader in and keeps them turning the pages, and the alternating POVs worked very well (and only made me feel more invested). I adored the plot and characters, but the writing just makes the story even better.
In short, there is talent just radiating from the pages of this book. It’s one of those books that I finished in a fog one afternoon, when I couldn’t put it down and I had had had to keep going. And then afterward I just didn’t know what to do with myself. I needed the book to go on, because as badly as I wanted to know what happened next, I never wanted it to end. It’s the kind of book that you can fall into and stay there for hours. I absolutely loved Ember, and I want to shove it into the hands of pretty much everyone I meet. It’s that good. And if you want to learn more before taking the plunge into Laia and Elias’s world, there’s also this amazing website with a book trailer, character trailers, information about the world, and more.
Until next time, hope you’re all enjoying your summers! Eat some ice cream for me.
P.S. An important note: This book does deal quite a lot with violence, and there is also a lot of mention of sexual assault and/or rape, as well as an actual instance of assault. This could be triggering.
P.P.S. Also, this book is downright GORGEOUS. The cover is all glow-y and there are two different maps on the endpapers and just look: