Book Review: ‘An Ember in the Ashes’ by Sabaa Tahir

Ember002Fresh off the heels of the lovely The Wrath and the Dawn, which you’ll see my review for soon, I was lucky enough to pick up another fantastic, epic story – Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes. With elements of fantasy, dystopia, romance, and plenty of action, the scope of this story is just huge, but I’ll do my best to give you an idea of what you can look forward to with this book.

There are two main perspectives in An Ember In The Ashes. First we meet Laia, a Scholar girl whose brother is taken by a group of Masks. The Masks are vicious, highly trained militia tasked with maintaining the power of the oppressive Martial Empire, and they are prepared for this role at Blackcliff, a school nestled in the heart of Scholar lands. Our other main character is Elias, who is nearing the end of his Mask training at Blackcliff. As graduation draws closer, he begins to question whether he can really live the life of a cruel, unfeeling Mask. To make matters more complicated, upon graduation Elias is required to compete in a horrible series of trials that will determine the next Martial Empire. When Laia takes on a Resistance mission to become a slave at Blackcliff in order to gather valuable intel in exchange for breaking her brother out of prison, she is thrown into an unfamiliar world where Elias becomes one of the few friendly faces.

And lest you think this is elaborate setup for an instalove story, take heart. Laia and Elias’s interactions are brief (but impactful), with most of the book focusing on their individual stories. Laia’s got it pretty rough, because she’s not just a slave – she’s the personal slave for Blackcliff’s commandant, who is possibly the most horrible woman ever to exist, fictional or otherwise. She takes pleasure in hurting others, and her lack of empathy is astounding. In any other environment, this woman would definitely be a serial killer. Laia is too busy just trying to stay alive (not to mention avoid being raped by the Masks-in-training who can assault her without consequence) to gather the intel she needs to save her brother. Meanwhile Elias is being forced to participate in horrible competitions that force him to kill his friends to keep himself alive, and he’s competing against his lifelong best friend, Helene, which understandably puts a strain on their relationship.

So basically, everything sucks for these two. And yet, An Ember in the Ashes is not unrelentingly depressing, because Laia and Elias are still good, and they bring out the good in others. You can understand why they feel a connection to each other and how that plays into the larger plot. Their character growth is believable and rewarding, and despite their weaknesses they are characters you want to root for. The story itself is so intricate – Tahir does an exceptional job of building this world and weaving together small plot threads into larger ones to make the book feel robust and fulfilling. There are a lot of pieces that only get a little attention here – they’re relevant to the story, but there’s a definite feeling that they can play a larger role should this book become a series.

I certainly hope it does. While An Ember in the Ashes could stand alone, there is just so much fantastic setup that it would be a shame to leave this world and these characters after one book. Despite having a high page count, not one second of this story drags, and even when I reached the ending I was wishing for more. I could find little things to nitpick here and there, but no book is perfect, and this one is exceptional so I don’t want to take away from that. Just read it now and thank me later, okay?

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