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.