Title: An Ember in the Ashes
Author: Sabaa Tahir
Ratings: 4.5/5 stars
In this Roman-inspired setting, the empire is ruled by the Martials, a group of brutal and merciless warriors. The Scholars live oppressed lives and are often enslaved, Laia is one such Scholar. When her brother is enslaved, she is forced to infiltrate Blackcliff Academy, an institute that churns out the empire’s most feared human weapons: The Masks. Elias is the academy’s best student, but he’s also having second thoughts about this dark path. Just as he’s planning to leave the Academy, he’s forced to enter a dangerous contest to become the next Emperor.
“The field of battle is my temple. The swordpoint is my priest. The dance of death is my prayer. The killing blow is my release.”
This is one of the most talked-about debut of the year, so I approached it with some trepidation – hype often kills a book. This is very much YA genre’s answer to the grim-dark trend of adult fiction. As apparent from the synopsis, this book is full of brutality, with threats of physical or sexual violence always looming near. It makes you uncomfortable, and for the first time in a long time, I actually feared for our protagonists. Sabaa Tahir’s portrayal of the violence is unflinching, and she has created one of the most savage characters in YA with The Commandant.
“You are full, Laia. Full of life and dark and strength and spirit. You are in our dreams. You will burn, for you are an ember in the ashes.”
The novel were narrated by both Laia and Elias. I felt that Laia’s chapters were a little bit stronger, as her character development throughout the novel was very apparent. I liked that she was not a naturally-born fearless, feisty warrior. Instead she’s meek, full of insecurities and weakness. However, what’s most admirable is how she gradually overcomes these flaws. Her strength of character comes from her grim determination to survive and to save her brother. Elias’s struggles between doing what’s right and what’s expected of him is an old trope, but I felt it was handled quite well here.
They always underestimated me.
However, my favourite character of all is Helene, Elias’s comrade and childhood friend. Although we never hear her thoughts, she is the person I felt for the most in this book. I liked her ruthless efficiency, her enormous capability for love and loyalty, and her steadfastness in doing what has to be done. I hope to see more of her in the future books.
The worldbuilding in this book was good, but very limited in scope. I don’t quite understand their caste system either: I think we need more information about the roles of Scholars, Illustrians and Martials. Most of the book was spent in Blackcliff Academy, so I hope that in future installments we will be able to see more of the rest of this world.
There are some large flaws in this book. In particular, the romantic angle ruined my experience. I felt that it was overly fluffy and clashed with the atmosphere of the rest of the book. Every time I hear about how so-and-so smells delicious/has a great bod/how close they are to kissing etc… it’s a rude jolt to an otherwise great read. I also felt that the one particular character in the love quadrangle was not needed at all. Aside from providing some swoon, his role could have been fulfilled by someone else completely.
Overall, it’s a great read if you ignore the obligatory romance. I would highly recommend it if you are looking for action, mystique and danger in a novel setting.