An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir


Part 1

In need of a new book, I asked my friend for a quick recommendation and she gave me this. I admit, having wanted to continue my Terry Pratchett marathon but not having time to order the next book, I had pretty low expectations going into this, but was pleasantly surprised. I cannot put this book down.

An Ember in the Ashes, at a glance, is yet another YA dystopian novel, but it absolutely does not read like one, and I cannot emphasize that enough. At every chapter, it has blown away my expectations. It throws the reader straight into the world without any intro, and does a fantastic job of building a complex world without pausing the plot. The story switches between the point of view of Laia, a teenage girl living in a community recently conquered by the Empire, and Elias, a 20 year old boy who is graduating as one of the most ruthless, elite lines of soldiers known to the Empire, but wants no part in it. Without elaborating and spoiling the plot too much, Laia, in order to save her family, goes undercover as a slave to the cruel and heartless commandant of Elias’ training camp.

This book is remarkable for a number of reasons, but mainly for its realism when it comes to war. While its intent is not to shock or horrify and gruesome descriptions and situations are avoided, nothing is sugarcoated. Laia’s fear and hardships as a slave are notably worse than the typical YA protagonist. Meanwhile, the soldiers are more or less realistically humanized- evil to varying extents, but still human with human motives and emotions. The organized resistance against the Empire is equally complex, as it is never quite clear what their methods are and how effective they are, or where exactly their morals stand. It is clear that many people who trusted the resistance have been hurt, however. Was their sacrifice for the greater good, or were they wasted? I look forward to learning more.

The only character who seems inhuman is the Commandant. Her cruelty extends over her slaves, students, and especially her son, and she seems to have no redeeming factors. Perhaps this is merely for an old-fashioned hero/villain effect. After all, throughout the book I feel reassured that neither protagonist will die, as they seem to have so much left to do. In the complexity and realism of the book, it does make for a nice, steadying factor, and who knows? It is quite possible I’ll learn more about her later. However, I wonder if there is another reason for her simplicity?

***Minor Spoilers below***


One element of the book that has been recently introduced is the presence of magical beings, and I very much admire how they feel part of the story and not like an add on, as their influence is hinted at throughout the beginning of the book. It has been recently been revealed that, MAJOR SPOILER: [the Commandant has been in communication with Ghuls, who are magical and evil creatures. I wonder if their influence is what turned her rotten to the core?]

***end spoilers***

I very much look forward to seeing how the plot evolves. There is much room for character development, as well as many aspects about their world neither the characters nor the reader have been fully introduced to yet. While the plot seems more or less set up for a happy, satisfying conclusion, the road to get there is still unclear. Romance also seems an inevitable part of the novel, but both Elias and Laia have more important things to worry about at the moment, which is refreshing. It is also unclear with whom the protagonists will end up with. They’ve had little interactions with each other, but do seem drawn to one another, although they each seem to have their own, separate love interest as well. Wherever this novel goes, I’m eager to continue reading.


1 Comment

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One response to “An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

  1. jamiekoj

    The second half of the book did not disappoint! However, it became a pretty stressful read, and I honestly prefer the first half. I ended up finishing most of the second half in one night because I could not find a stopping point which did not leave me stressed. While Laia’s life seems to fall into a more secure place, Elias’ life becomes the stressful one. Although his life is thrown into constant danger, as he becomes part of a trial to become an emperor, I’m much more stressed out by the growing relationship/communication issues. As his best friend (who happens to have a secret crush on him while he also develops romantic feelings towards her) puts everything on the line for him, their relationship begins to falter as he goes out of his way to help Laia. I suppose the situation was reasonable enough, and the romantic subplot somewhat helped character development, did not feel forced, and wasn’t made over important. However, it still brought down the freshness of the first half for me and made me less eager to pick up the book.

    Despite this complaint, I remain true to my statement that the second half did not disappoint. The characters became more and more fleshed out, including the commandant. A moment which I truly enjoyed was how Elias, (spoilers beyond this point) in a conversation with his mother (the commandant) realizes where she went bitter, where her humanity was, etc, but knew that these qualities did not redeem her. He is also able to learn from Laia how to stop this from happening to himself. She teaches him how to let go of the past and learn from mistakes, telling him to draw a line and refuse to cross it again. He does this at the end of the book where he spares Laia’s life against direct orders, and even though it appears this will have him executed, he knows in his heart and mind that he did the right thing and has not lost, but rather won. The drag through relationship drama is also worth the weight, as it clears up in a satisfactory way in the end.

    (end spoilers) To conclude, An Ember in the Ashes is a refreshing, inspiring, and interesting book with multiple great qualities including complex characters, a unique and realistic fictional world, and thought provoking themes about bravery and doing the right thing. I would definitely recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys YA dystopian/fantasy stories but is tired of the repeated tropes and the magically unshaven legs of the female protagonist.

    Final Rating: 8.5/10

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