YA Weekend: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

An Ember in the AshesAn Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

Series: Book 1

Publisher: Razorbill (April 28, 2015)

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

An Ember in the Ashes was a great read, and so far probably one of my favorite “mainstream” Young Adult books this year. I can definitely understand the excitement surrounding it, and the book might actually live up to all the attention. That said, the novel is not without its flaws, ultimately falling prey to the many pitfalls of its genre. For a debut, though? I thought it was fantastic.

The book takes place in the heart of the ruthless Martial Empire, following the strife filled lives of two young people. Laia is a simple Scholar girl, forced to join the Resistance after her brother Darin, the only family she has left, is arrested by the military. In order to free Darin, she agrees to go undercover to spy on the Commandant of the empire’s military academy. Then there’s Elias Veturius, one of best soldiers to ever graduate from that academy. Deep down though, he wants nothing more than to escape from the empire and leave its brutal traditions behind forever.

The empire’s Augurs, however, have a different plan in mind. It has been foreseen that without an heir, the current Martial emperor’s line will end this year. The next ruler of the greatest empire this world has ever seen is to be chosen amongst the finest crop of the academy’s latest graduates – which means Elias is to be thrown into a series of competitions that will test his resolve and push him to his limits. Meanwhile, Laia is tasked by the Resistance to find out more about the process, plunging her into the cruel and unrestrained world of the Trials, binding her fate to Elias’s forever.

The plot is quite intriguing to say the least, in spite of the fact that we start things off with what appears to be the two most foolish protagonists on the planet. Elias, who is about to attempt the riskiest decision of his life by deserting, can’t even seem to muster up the ability to at least look innocent. Then there’s Laia, who keeps berating herself over and over again for being such a useless, weak coward. I’m sure it will come as a surprise to absolutely no one that when you say something enough times, you’ll actually start to believe it. Which is why, very quickly, Laia began to really get on my nerves.

But then the amount of character growth by the end of the book, at least for Elias, was astounding. Despite the book having two main protagonists, for me it was all about him. His chapters are more exciting, but more importantly, he has his beliefs plus the determination, strength and courage to stick by them. I’m also captivated by the relationships. A bizarre dynamic exists in Gens Veturius, with Elias’s grandfather General Quin as its patriarch, but it is his daughter, Elias’s mother, who holds the deadliest power. That’s because she’s also the military school’s Commandant. Yes, the very same one Laia was ordered to spy on.

As the Commandant, Keris Veturius is one of the best YA villains I’ve ever encountered. It’s rare that a bad guy actually becomes one of my favorite characters, but there’s a cold, well-crafted complexity to her that we don’t see a lot in this genre, and that immediately made her fascinating. Not only does she have total authority over all the Masks, she also possesses a disturbing tendency to just know things. Her relationship with Elias is also a curious subject. There’s certainly no love lost between mother and son, and in fact the Commandant seems repulsed by Elias. The relationship between Elias and his grandfather Quin on the other hand appears warmer and more genial, and you really have to wonder just what on earth happened to make this family so screwed up like this. We get some hints at the end, but there’s definitely a much bigger story there, and I have a feeling that it might have something to do with the identity of Elias’s father.

I also really like the character of Helene, Elias’s oldest and closest friend at the academy. I really wish she had been a point-of-view character; somehow I think I would have had enjoyed seeing through her eyes more than Laia’s. I think the dynamics between Elias and Helene are also more interesting, and I couldn’t have been more pleased with how their story played out, taking us along on an unpredictable ride full of twists and turns, wondering all the while how things are going to end for these two best friends. There are so much more I want to know about Helene, but unfortunately we don’t get a lot of information. No reason has been given yet as to why they only choose one woman per generation for the military school, for instance. But still, her relationship with Elias interests me, and I’m looking forward to see how that plot thread will resolve.

Now on to the novel’s weaknesses. For me, the big one was Laia. While Elias grew as a character, Laia continued to be infuriating as hell. She agrees to be a spy, jumping into this nigh impossible situation without any serious consideration, fueled only by her obnoxious bullheadedness. She makes a terrible spy too, by the way, and everyone knows this including herself. Yet she never actually makes the effort to find out how to be a better one, and if it weren’t for advice given to her by others she would have kept making the same mistakes again and again. The worst part is, she laments incessantly about how weak she thinks she is, and instead of making me sympathize with her, it just makes me angry. Through all this she never grows her own backbone, until literally the very last chapter when it’s too late for me to care. The rest of the book, it’s always her brother Darin’s voice in her head giving her encouragement instead of her own, Darin giving her a reason to take action instead of her own will. She shows very little growth in that sense, despite the brave face she tries to put on. Her chapters aren’t as interesting either, and mostly I just couldn’t wait until they were over so I could get back to Elias’s point of view.

Also, if I had to pick a few nits, firstly I wished the author had gone with different names for the world’s people rather than “Scholar” or “Martial”. It reminded me too much of Divergent, not exactly one of my favorite YA novels and certainly not a book I’d want to associate with this one. Secondly, there are some logical inconsistencies in the story (like if Blackcliff Academy was such a hotbed for Resistance spies, you’d think the military would have a better system in place to vet their slaves and servants. Of course, if they did, Laia’s incompetence would have never have gotten her through and there would be no story).

And thirdly, there is this bizarre love triangle. Actually, make that two love triangles. When the book started off with Elias and Helene, Laia and Keenan (another Resistance member), I was really hoping Sabaa Tahir would stay on this path with these two pairs and avoid having to resort to overused love geometrics. Alas, ultimately she decided to adhere to convention, and to my further dismay, instead of just having a single love triangle we end up with this two-girls-for-one-boy and two-boys-for-one-girl situation. A bit unnecessary, if you ask me.

So yes, there definitely are some punches you just have to roll with. But fortunately, they are small punches. The last few that I mentioned are insignificant to minor flaws, none of which are nearly as big as the issue I had with Laia’s character, which is probably the main reason I’m not embracing this book as wholeheartedly as I could be.

I really did enjoy this book though, and the fact that I’ve already written so much in this review is probably a good testament to how much I liked it. I found it quite addicting, especially Elias’s chapters and the terrible things he had to go through in the Trials. I admit, when I started the book I truly thought the results of the completion would be a foregone conclusion, but I was wrong – there are a lot of surprises and unexpected twists and turns in the search for the Martial’s new Emperor and Blood Shrike. With the way it ended, I can’t imagine there not being a sequel. Who knows what it’ll be and who knows when it’ll come out, but what I do know is that I’ll be checking it out for sure.


22 Comments on “YA Weekend: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir”

  1. mmm, I have mixed feelings with this one. Part of me wants to read it and part of me thinks I’ll be really irritated with the issues you raise – particularly the love triangle.
    Lynn 😀


    • I’m quite picky about my YA, my one pet peeve being the unnecessary love triangle 😉 But I think YA readers will adore this one to pieces.


  2. Elias’s chapters must be petty amazing to make up for Laia. She sounds very frustrating but to get a four with love triangles and a frustrating main character the book must be pretty good. It looks like I will have to add it to the TBR.


    • Elias was great, so I didn’t want to fault the story just because Laia was super annoying. And other than that, I think the good parts outweigh the bad. Worth reading, imo.


  3. I wasn’t that thrilled about this when I read the synopsis, and I think your review has put me firmly on the “don’t read” side of things. (Simply because I have so many other great things to read!)


  4. hahaha, yeah, you’re totally right about that: the beginning wasn’t gorgeous portrayement of the two main characters. I quite enjoyed this – the world-building being excellent and everything very graphic – but THAT AWFUL LOVE-TRIANGLE UUUUUGH. Anyway, great review 🙂


    • I know, the love triangles were totally unnecessary. I don’t mind love triangles — really, I don’t! As long as they’re done well. “Unnecessary” was the key word there, I really hate complicated love geometry that feels like it gets thrown in for the hell of it.


  5. I am so, so happy that you found this one to be worth the hype surrounding it. It sounds super promising but I always grow skeptical when a book gets a lot of buzz like this one is. Intriguing plot + character development definitely cuts it for me, although the love-triangle there worries me a bit – hopefully it won’t put me off of the rest of the good stuff this book seems to offer. Wonderful review Mogsy^^


  6. Yes! High praise from you on one I’m adjust excited about. I must definitely get this one now. Argh too bad I didn’t land a review copy. I’ll deal with the triangle it’s a freaking standard part of YA (grunts)


  7. Pingback: Mogsy’s Bookshelf Roundup: Book Haul, Backlist, What I’ve Read | The BiblioSanctum

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