A remarkable work of dark YA fantasy—beautifully crafted, and laden with Arabian mythology.
Told in alternating dual POV from the perspectives of spy/slave Laia and unwilling soldier Elias, readers experience this alternate history-feeling dystopian fantasy from two very different sides of society. Ember In The Ashes takes place in what one might imagine from an ancient Roman Empire’s brutal takeover of a more scholarly Middle Eastern nation (without the word ‘Roman’ ever coming into play, of course). A world in which immortals, Jinn, efrits, ghuls, and wraiths exist and affect things—though very few humans seem cognizant or capable of detecting these supernatural forces.
It was a little hard for me to get attached to Laia at first. Not because she wasn’t a sympathetic character, but because I kept expecting her to die in literally every scene. She's constantly fearful, hopelessly outmatched, and shows no signs of the competency needed to keep herself alive. I appreciated that she wasn’t some ridiculously awesome warrior woman, but as the daughter of resistance fighters, a handful of survival skills would have made some sense. (Also would have gone a long way in helping me risk rooting for her outside of the basic instinct for railing against injustice.) But I don’t mean it to sound like more than half a criticism, because this aspect also highlights the degree of high-wire tension that’s maintained for most of the book.
Tahir’s writing is impressive. Her voice is strong, her worldbuilding immersive, and her descriptions evocative. It’s hard not to appreciate how the supernatural elements are gradually woven into the worldbuilding. For a good bit of the book, I found the overarching storyline more of a compelling drive than the main characters (especially since the chances of Laia surviving felt incredibly slim.) But I didn't really mind. I was curious enough just speculating over what was happening on a grander political and preternatural scale.
Content Note: This is a cruel, domineering society entrenched in misogyny; and as such, it’s made clear that rape is a commonplace occurrence. But while it is frequently implied, it is never shown in any graphic detail. (There is an attack on Laia at one point that seems to have this intent, but graphicness of that scene is purely in the violent brutality.) If the mere mention of rape is triggering to you, this is something you may want to consider before reading. This reviewer personally found its handling realistic-yet-tactful. And while the violence and torture places it solidly in the mature YA range, I wouldn’t call even those elements gratuitous.
For those who don’t care much for love triangles, be forewarned that there’s something of a love parallelogram going on here. Elias has an obsession-at-first-sight reaction to Laia (as do a couple of other male characters). And the romance angle seems a touch rushed into, what with how very little most of the characters get to know each other and that constant threat of death looming over everything. (Helene and Elias’ confusing best-friend feeling for each other is easily the most organic and convincing of the pairing options, mainly because they have so clear an established prior history.)
The leave-off is a bit of a cliffhanger, with lots of questions left wide open. But really, the only reason I haven’t charged on into the next book is that I’m waiting for the third one to release. ?
A dark and beautiful fantasy book you won't forget!
The story is told from two POV’s: Laia and Elias, both in first person which allows to connect immediately with the characters and mimic their every thought or feeling as if it’s your own. Laia is a Scholar and because of this she is classed as subservient to the Martials. Her mother, father and old sister died when she was young so she and her borther live with her Nan and Pops. Elias is part of the Martial Empire and has spent the last fourteen years training to be a soldier, he is now a Mask; the deadliest and highest ranking fighter and is top of his class. However he is also the bastard of the Commandant AKA, the most ruthless character you will ever read about. Enjoy my lovelies.
One night Laia’s brother is taken by the Martials and thrown into person, determined to free him Laia must seek aid from the Resistance. The Resistance will not freely save her brother instead she must work as a slave girl for the Commandant in order to spy on her. In a world where slaves are brutally beaten and raped with no consequences to the offender and the Commandant will happily punish you for being a second late, Laia must tread very carefully!
This was perfectly paced for me, not slow but slow enough that I was agonizing of the when the characters would meet again and what would happen next, seriously I was up until 2AM reading this Oh yes, it was that good, let me tell you!
There is a romance in this and how I loved it, there was a slight triangle and no concrete decisions were made but seriously this book isn’t about romance it’s about Laia risking everything to save her brother. I actually didn’t mind that the romance took a back seat it just made me yearn for those precious moments with the characters also Laia isn’t your average emboldened heroine, she’s young, naïve and completely terrified, she doesn’t want to do this but she does so for her brother and it’s makes way for some serious character development.
This book is dark, twisted and just delicious to read with it’s completely addictive writing. I honestly read this with a pounding heart from cover to cover, with the added elements of magic, trials and old myths coming to life; it could seriously do no wrong.
Sabaa Tahir presents a bleak and disturbing world. With the conquered Scholars on one side and the terrifying Masks on the other. Masks are trained as children in the most horrific of circumstances to best their peers and follow their superior's orders without question. The Scholars watch as they raid, arrest, and murder with impunity. Thinking only of rescuing her brother from prison, Laia agrees to enter the Mask's world as a spy for the resistance, a position that proves more and more dangerous as she becomes more and more desperate. Elias also dreams of escape. He has never wanted to be a mask and has elaborate plans to slip away. This is, of course, until fate steps in in the form of a mysterious Augur who seems to know the secrets inside his heart and head. As he tries to meet their demands while still maintaining his soul, he faces challenges that he never imagined and is continuously pulled towards Laia and away from the world he swore to uphold.
An Ember in the Ashes is not for the faint of heart. It is a terrifying world where the characters must make heartbreaking decisions. Often, these choices mean suffering and death for those that they care about. The masks are taught to fight and sometimes kill one another from the moment they begin their training. Upon graduation, they are put in charge of a society where they will be forced to torture and kill Scholars without question. There is a great deal of talk about prostitution and rape. There are instances of attempted rape and points where the threat of rape is used as a plot device to spur on male characters, which I could have done without.
The plot is exciting, with danger around every turn. Laia is spying on the most terrifying woman in the empire, who always seems one step ahead of her enemies and takes a particular sort of pleasure in torturing and mutilating those that displease her. Elias is facing a set of trials that threaten not only his life, but also his soul. The odds are stacked against him as the trials seem designed to prey on his weaknesses more than anyone else's. Despite this, there aren't really that many surprises in the plot. It was just too easy to guess which characters had ulterior motivations and how the story would play out. The only characters I was left questioning were the Augurs. It still isn't clear what side they fall on and how much they manipulated the outcome for their own aims.
While I liked the characters, I didn't particularly LOVE the characters. The only one I wanted to spend more time with was Helene and I really wish the narration had also been told from her point of view (fingers crossed for the next book!) I was not really invested in any facet of the love triangle (love square?) and, as with the rest of the plot, it was pretty easy to predict which way things would go.
We know that there will be a sequel to this book, but it isn't yet clear if it will be a trilogy. There are a lot of questions left to answer (who exactly is Cook? What game are the Augurs playing? Who betrayed Laia's parents? Who is Elias' father?) which means lots of material for expansion in this series, whether it be through more books or novellas (I would love to see novellas telling Cook's story and the young life of the Commandant.)
Bottom Line:While I am definitely not on the "best book of the year" bandwagon. I am also intrigued enough to say that I will read the sequel as soon as it comes out.
AN EMBER IN THE ASHES is the first book of the series. Although there are no substantial evidence that this will be a trilogy, one can certainly hope. The second book is apparently being picked up by the publisher, and it seems we'll be getting more of Laia and Elias. The book is a somewhat mixture of Rome (yes, Ancient Rome) and the supernatural. So, let's dig in!
Love triangles. Normally, love triangles tick me off, but Tahir puts them together so well that they are greatly enjoyable to read. (Skip this paragraph because of minor spoilers.) The major romance is between Laia and Elias. However, there are some minor ones. Laia and Keenan (a rebel) makes an interesting couple, and the idea of Helene (a Mask like Elias) and Elias being together isn't a far stretch. Each pairing is great, and it is incredibly hard to pick a favorite. Sabaa Tahir makes it a very, very difficult choice. I admit that I like all three ships. (Polygamy and polyandry, I guess? That might work.)
The world of AN EMBER IN THE ASHES is absolutely horrifying. Implied that women are treated as inferior to men, the Rome-inspired world has a scary military of "Mask." The Mask is actually a soldier who wears a silver mask. There are some gladiator-like scenes, and the supernatural elements of the story gives an incredible suspenseful subplot. Tahir puts mythological creatures, bringing a fairy tale touch to the book.
One of the two narrators, Laia is desperate to save her brother. Making a deal with the shady resistance, she goes to the nest of her parent's murderer and spies on her (Elias' crazy and heartless mother). A Scholar with an intriguing family history, Laia is interesting and a very motivated character. Her feats are grand, and she is a strong-minded character with a naive touch.
The other narrator, Elias is a soldier in the army. He is a Mask, but he doesn't fit well in the army. He is an outsider, though he is surrounded by friends. He is the son of Laia's parents' murderer, but for him, the apple falls far from the tree. He wishes to run away, but it is only fate (and an old friend, Cain) who brings him back. He is a greatly fascinating character, whose complicity serves to protect him from his enemies.
In conclusion, AN EMBER IN THE ASHES is a great start to this supernatural and suspenseful series with a Rome-inspired world. It is gritty and dark, not for the faint of heart. Laia and Elias are wonderful narrators, and they bring out the best in each other (so I ship them). The ending is absolutely satisfying with promises for more. I definitely can't wait for the sequel. I would recommend this to any reader with a fondness for love triangles, magic, schemes, and the supernatural/paranormal.
Sabaa Tahir’s debut novel, AN EMBER IN THE ASHES, is all at once a fantastical, adventurous, thrill ride that at its core is a story of survival. This book beautifully layers dual points of view with Laia and Elias as our guiding points through the many lands of the Empire: Serra and Blackcliff and beyond.
This world is built with tact and an intricate attention to detail necessary to bring a story of this caliber to life. From the start we find Laia and Elias in two separate worlds. But through chance and circumstance, they are brought together within the walls of Blackcliff. Home to the Empire’s military, the imposing and regimented structure trains the most skilled and dangerous students. Elias is one of these students.
While there is the intensity of fights and raids and death that permeate every inch of this novel, it is the intimacy of these characters’ lives that is most remarkable. Despite the structured lifestyle he’s had for most of his life, Elias is not just brawn and brute. He is a collection of vulnerabilities and flaws and wants that propel his story forward. In much the same way, Laia is more than her past and the circumstances that land her behind the guarded walls of Blackcliff. She is imperfect, fearful, and filled with sorrow for her choices and their consequences. She is haunted. But it is through love that she finds a fierce need to survive and protect those closest to her at all costs. And this is the most empowering and endearing thing that results from both characters. This takes them from words on the page and transforms them into real people who readers will WANT to accompany through every step of the story.
Along with Laia and Elias, there is a Resistance plotting against the Empire, slaves, tribes, friends, family, students, and a ruthless Commandant hell bent on ensuring power remains with her. These characters weave a rich tapestry filled with complex relationships that complicate an already complicated world. And while family, freedom, and power dominate the landscape and the lives of the characters, it is love that blooms on almost every page. The love between brother and sister, between best friends, and even that which burgeons between two strangers as they get to know one another. Yet, the romance never overwhelms this story of survival.
Within this political structure reminiscent of ancient Roman times, there is also an interesting play between gender roles. At Blackcliff, there is only one female student allowed per generation and this falls to Helene Aquilla, Elias’s best friend. Helene is the essence of power and strength. She is a strong female character that can beat even the most worthy of adversaries. But it is the way she loves that gives her truth strength, and the same goes for Laia, and Elias. Instead of being dominated by the darkness and destruction that fills their world, they are all inspired to look toward the light.
Now this isn’t to say that this story is perfect and that there is hope on every page. Without defeat and guilt and sorrow and all of the other things that define life, hope would never seem as beautiful as it does in the world of AN EMBER IN THE ASHES. But what this book can teach us, is the power of possibility, of believing in love, and family to set us free. Because in the end, that is what Laia and Elias are striving for.
Sabaa Tahir is a powerful voice in the world of YA. Her writing is wrought with emotion, beauty, and a lavishness that (no surprise) has already catapulted this book to the bestseller list! While this is being called a stand alone, there seems to be more for Elias and Laia and hopefully more from Sabaa Tahir. We need her strength and ability to make us see that there is truly a flicker of hope, an ember, if you will, amongst the darkest of ashes.
Sabah Tahir’s debut is a book that’s sure to please everyone from fans of HARRY POTTER to THE HUNGER GAMES, and beyond! So pick up your copy today and find out why everyone is talking about AN EMBER IN THE ASHES!
Laia lives in the Empire's impoverished backstreets under the rule of the harsh Martials. When her grandparents are murdered and older brother Darin is captured, she flees under the catacombs of the city only to run into the Resistance. Laia agrees to go undercover as a slave at the dreaded Blackcliff, the Empire's finest Academy, in order for Resistance leaders to help free her older brother. Little does she know what she is up against. The dreaded Masks rule with an iron fist and if it gets out that she's a spy? She'll be executed and her brother will be killed. Then she runs into Elias, a Mask with his own secret. Both find that their decisions will be interlinked and change the history of the Empire.
What worked: OMG, everything! This book reminded me so much of Gladiator meets THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS. The suspense and tension pulls the reader on an emotional pack ride through a fantasy world based on Rome where betrayals, danger, and forbidden love are around every corner.
Laia doesn't think she's as courageous as her famed Resistance mother who died under the Masks and often doubts herself. But I disagree. Her love of her older brother drives her to continue to spy for the Resistance even when she's tortured by the sadist Commandant, who happens to be the mother of Elias. Laia also struggles with her attraction not only to Elias but to Keenan, a Resistant follower.
Did I mention how many feels are throughout this book? Omg, this is one of the huge strengths of this novel. You feel the pain Laia has by witnessing the massacre of her grandparents. The pain of being tortured for simple acts of not being fast enough for the Commandant. And the feelings that grow between her and Elias, a love she knows can't go anywhere.
Elias also has his own struggles which include not being good enough for his mother(her own ending reveal will tear at you), to an attraction he feels for his best friend Helene, another Mask who he has to compete against in order to win at being the next Emperor(something he doesn't want). He's up against rivalry at the academy between Marcus, a ruthless Mask who will do anything in order to quell Elias's chances of succeeding.
The love between Elias and Laia is slow building but when it gets to this one scene, you just know the fates have lead them to be together.
There's so many other great things about this novel--the world building is amazing with vivid descriptions of the Blackcliff academy, the trials all go through, the desert people with their tales of mythological creatures that might in fact be real, and the creepy Augurs, beings who can't die but are in charge of a series of tests to find the next Emperor. The trials are cruel and ruthless.
All this helps move the story along with twists and turns and surprises at the end. There's also some bittersweetness that had me teary eyed and hoping that the next book comes out soon!
Amazing action packed romantic fantasy where following your heart has it's own bittersweet consequences. This is a must read book for all fantasy fans that lives up to it's hype and more!