Review. Sabaa Tahir, An Ember In The Ashes

Those who know me and my reading habits, will know that the YA-genre and I don’t always agree. Even more so, when a book receives heaps of hype I tend to display some severe allergic reactions to the book in question, especially when the book hasn’t been released yet. Believe me when I say that I’m surprised my eyes haven’t yet rolled out of their sockets from every time I heard someone proclaiming their excitement for a certain book, no matter they have the slightest idea what it’s about.
As such, I was really apprehensive when it came to Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember In The Ashes. On the one hand, I was intrigued by the Roman setting combined with the Fantasy elements, but on the other hand the hype was so big it was almost a carcrash waiting to happen. My initial intrigue won the battle and luckily so, cause this turned out to be a very pleasant read.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear. It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.
There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

While it took me some time to get into the main story, it eventually got me hooked. The story is told from two perspectives, Laia’s and Elias’s, and both were equally engaging. Laia’s story was filled with spying, intrigue and conceiled excitement, whereas Elias gave us a glimpse from the other side of the story. His tale was more filled with magical aspects, such as the Masks and the creatures that inhabit this world. This is what eventually sold me, the hints of what is possible, the hints of the supernatural. Add to that the different forms of excitement and intrigue you get from both main POV’s and the result is a captivating plot. While the book started of slow and gave me quite a hard time to pick it up and keep reading, the second half more than made up for it. This was primarily due to Elias’s perspective, but Laia didn’t disappoint either. Very good reading that kept me turning the pages. Especially the Trials were riveting to read! I wonder how she will top that in the sequel, cause that will be a trial in its own right..
There is one thing, however, that kept me from completely falling for this, and that is the romance. I don’t mind some googly eyes and fluttering heartbeats, but I start to feel queasy when love triangles come into play. Here, triangles interconnected and became squares or cubes or whatever. It’s like a Pokémon evolving into a big scary beast when all you wanted was its fluffy first stage.. While I’m not sold on all the romantics – especially Laia’s triangle was a bit meh – I liked the main ship(*) and the Festival-scene was pretty nice.
As I mentioned, I wasn’t really sucked into the story from the get go. This was partly due to the plot that downgeared after an initial burst, but I also had quite a hard time connecting to the characters. Even now, after finishing the book, I don’t know where I stand on Laia nor Elias. I don’t dislike them, but the way they were portrayed also didn’t work in their favour. Circumstances had their defences out full throttle, but being in their heads, past the shields and all, didn’t warm my heart for them either, unfortunately. The side characters on the other hand, did evoke some responses. Whereas Izzy is cuddly cute, Marcus and Keris are loathsome, vile and evil without redeeming qualities so far. It makes me wonder how they got to be like that.. Keris in particular. I am very much looking forward to learning about her and why she is the way she is..
All this was captured by pretty solid writing. As mentioned, the first half was rather slow, but I wouldn’t say it dragged. There was enough incentive to push you forward into the next chapter, mostly because of little cliff-hangers at the end of the chapter. I’m not a big fan of this technique, I’d rather the story pulls me onward rather than denying me the satisfaction of a rounded chapter ending. Nitpicking aside, Sabaa Tahir conjured up an alluring setting with a mythology that begs to be explored further. On the go, she had the guts to confront her characters with questions of morality, and I’m not talking about the choice of eating meat here. This added depth takes the novel further than the ‘boy meets girl in a fucked-up world’(**).

I’ve read my share of hyped books and where some turned out good enough to try the inevitable sequel, most didn’t get past mediocre at best. Since An Ember In The Ashes received tons of hype, I almost passed on it. Glad I didn’t, cause even though it wasn’t perfect or the best, it restored my faith in YA fiction. This book proves that a breath of fresh air is still possible and hype can be deserving. Since I rarely award the full rating and I don’t bother with halves, this book gets three blightly glowing embers in its ashes, but leaning towards sparking a fourth. A solid and enjoyable debut!

★ ★ ★

Spark a flame yourself and go undercover!

(*) I’m reluctant to put it into the main post cause it might be considered a spoiler, but let’s cut all the pretense. We all know that our main heroes are destined to be together and uncross their stars..
(**) Talking about fucked-up worlds, how does one define An Ember In The Ashes? Contrary to half of GoodReads, I’m not sold on the dystopian-genre. To me, it feels like a YA-Fantasy in a non-medieval setting, rather than a dystopian novel, but I could be wrong. Future books will tell, I guess?

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