An Ember in the Ashes – Book Review

An Ember in the Ashes (An Ember in the Ashes, #1) by Sabaa Tahir

Title: An Ember in the Ashes (Ember Quartet #1)

Author: Sabaa Tahir

Publisher: HarperVoyager

Rating: ★★★

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Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

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 realise that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

(Taken from Goodreads)

The Book Review

This book was gathering virtual dust on my kindle reader. Inspired by The City of Brass, I decided to give this one a go and kick off a proper Middle-Eastern fantasy reading spree. Wow, what a ride this one was! Overall, I really enjoyed in the end; I wish I could have given it a higher rating but there were some things (discussed below) that were unfortunately real issues for me and prevented from doing so.

You will burn, for you are an ember in the ashes.
— An Ember in the Ashes

What I Liked

What truly lifts this story up is the characters. Characterisation is extremely solid, further reinforced by the use of first person narration. Laila takes more time to become as dynamic as Elias, but I liked that each had something very specific and unique to give to the narrative. Both their points of view added crucial information to the story, thereby making it impossible to discount the presence of either. While I think that the alternating format the author employed was at times constricting, I believe Tahir managed it well overall.

“If you could just be who you are in here” – I place my palm over his heart – “instead of who they made you, then you would be a great Emperor.”
— An Ember in the Ashes

By the second part of the book (it’s divided into three parts), I was more invested in the characters and their plight — even that of secondary characters. I wasn’t immediately brought to care about them out of extreme pity; rather, I was encouraged to get to know them, gradually, as they learned more about themselves too. My opinion of them changed as the characters themselves changed, so it felt like a natural evolution. I appreciated how the reader was taken on a journey alongside characters in this way, giving the book a much more organic feel.

“There are two kinds of guilt,” I say softly. “The kind that’s a burden and the kind that gives you purpose. Let your guilt be your fuel.”
— An Ember in the Ashes

The story truly picks up in the second part of the book. Page-turning action and tension levels are kept high throughout, effectively glueing me to the eReader. I loved how the story starts off as fairly simplistic but becomes ever more intricate as it unfolds. The intrigue, mystery and complications that appear as trouble arises complete the character arcs very well. The book literally ends with a BANG!

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What I Liked a Little Less

I had issues with the first part of the book. A lot of information was thrown at me without context, and the action unfolds too fast, often skipping a passage or two. It felt very rushed and the developments too convenient. It almost persuaded me to abandon the book, but ultimately I’m glad I stuck with it until the second part.

The world-building is fairly… thin. Beyond being very sparsely described, there isn’t anything special or unique about the setting. The Empire is loosely based off the Roman Empire, but it’s really distant from its source material, which made me question the purpose of making it Roman. Aside from that, little time and few words are spent establishing setting and lore; due to this, even some of the language is confusing and lost on the reader (e.g. “I am a swamp jinn”). This was a real shame, because I believe that by giving the setting and the history greater depth, the intrigues revealed later would have had a stronger impact.

Furthermore, the naming of the characters is not consistent with their heritage (especially in the case of the Illustrians).

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There is a lot of repetition. Laia emphasises her cowardice and insecurity; likewise, Elias spends a lot of time regretting not deserting, agonising over Helen and thinking about his family issues. I understand these are crucial conflicts, but it became a little monotonous after a few chapters.

Similarly, the trials eventually became variations on the same theme. They started off well with the foreboding visions, but then just repeated the same thing over and over. Each trial is about killing dear ones, so I lost interest. I wonder how the Aspirants couldn’t see it coming themselves. Plus, I’m always a bit sceptical of writers who see only violence and death as ways to create conflict and elicit empathy within the reader. I would have liked some more originality, something more testing.

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The romance in this book is… awkward. Attraction doesn’t develop organically; it just sort of happens. There isn’t a clear separation between attraction and love either, which made it all the more confusing.

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On the other hand, you also get some amazing romantic lines that make up for it a little, like this one:

The kiss speaks. It begs. Let me forget, forget, forget.
— An Ember in the Ashes

Finally, a pet peeve of mine: scents. These guys must have abnormal olfactory organs, because all of them are able to sniff each other out everywhere. I can accept catching someone’s scent when they are, perhaps, hugging you, but not in a bustling market where there are all kinds of smells mixing together. Besides, people don’t constantly smell in the same exact way and with the same exact exotic scent. It was unrealistic and annoying.

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Would I recommend this book? Yes, but only because I’d think the other books in the series would keep up the action on which this one ended.

Other books like this: Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri, a book I want to read myself soon!
(Link redirects to Goodreads)


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