Review: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir - Vilma Iris | Lifestyle Blogger

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Review: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

My Thoughts

A bold and exciting debut from Sabaa Tahir.
Suspense, intrigue, romance, power—
this fantastical page turner is one of my favorites this year.



an ember in the ashes coverLaia 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 realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

My Review

Sabaa Tahir’s debut novel is a fantasy richly imagined and boldly executed. It immediately captivated me with a world inspired by Ancient Rome, where death vanquished defiance and blind obedience shadowed intellect. Tahir’s writing was impressively polished, her world-building clearly researched and detailed, and her storytelling gripping and addictive. I loved everything about this book, exceeding the already high expectations based on buzz alone. The story is a fantasy with dystopian influences, rife with nail-biting suspense, deepening intrigue, brutal, gory battles and a supernatural power that threaded throughout. Ember certainly channeled the duty, discipline and military prowess of Spartan Agoge, but also introduced a female protagonist who learns to be brave and resilient through circumstance. I loved how Tahir wove this compelling story, between the clash of scholars and soldiers, between thinkers and mercenaries, between leaders and followers. And it’s somewhere in between these extremes that we find the real story for both Laia and Elias.

Under the rule of the Martial Empire, the Scholars had been cast aside, killed or enslaved. Scholar Laia had already felt the pain of losing her parents at the hands of the enemy, but when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, she’s forced to into the enemy’s den to save her brother. Laia must become a slave in the Empire’s deadliest military academy (Blackcliff) to spy for the Resistance… if she can survive the terrifying Commandant, that is.

“If you are working with The Resistance, if you contact them, if you think of contacting them, I will know and I will destroy you.”

It’s at Blackcliff where this slave girl meets Elias, the school’s best soldier. A soldier who secretly longs to break from the tyranny of the school and his heritage. Elias feels like an outsider among the students he’s grown up with… the soldiers trained to be the Empire’s deadliest front. The Masks, as they are known, don silver masks that meld into their skin, symbolizing their forging with a destiny where obedience is a must and blood is a necessity.

“You seek to run. You seek to abandon your duty. But you cannot escape your destiny.”

But soon, with just days before Elias breaks free, his destiny once again shackles him with news that can change everything he’s planned.

“This life is not always what we think it will be… You are an ember in the ashes, Elias Veturius. You will spark and burn, ravage and destroy. You cannot change it. You cannot stop it.”

For both Elias and Laia, they each seek to take back control of their futures, each for different reasons, but their lives turn out to be entwined in a way they never could’ve predicted. Worse yet, when unexpected emotions surge, they cannot yield to the feelings when chaos reigns around them, when the future of their world delicately hangs in the balance.

“… when he’d met my gaze for a jolting moment, I’d seen life bursting through, chaotic and alluring beneath the shadow of the mask. I’d seen fire and desire, and my heart had thumped faster.”

Both our protagonists must face their own fears head on, as themes of oppression, freedom, betrayal, power, friendship and love are explored. I loved that Tahir drew on Arabic influences as this vivid and often terrifying world came to life almost cinematically. The story did feature a nebulous kind of love triangle, and if I could say there was one element that could be strengthened moving forward, it would be the way the romance is handled. In a way, it’s a minor part of the story, but in other ways, love is at its very center. The forbidden aspect of a slave and a solider falling for each other was exciting, and I wanted to explore their connection a little deeper. Also, some of the characters in the story are really well developed and I found myself fascinated by them, wanting to know more. Helene is a great and tragic example, Cook another.

Overall, this has been one of the most exciting, gripping tales I’ve read this year. The story felt fresh, despite it circling some well-known YA dystopian/fantasy tropes, and I think it’s a merit to the author’s creativity and research. More than anything, I could really see the story in my head, visualize the characters, imagine the dark and foreboding campus of Blackcliff.

Although the novel was rumored to be a standalone, the story ends in a way where there is absolutely more to come. I can’t imagine not continuing with the story. I, for one, am ready and excited to keep reading, more fully exploring these characters and the highly complex situations in which they find themselves.

Amazing debut novel for Sabaa Tahir. I want more!

“Shadows gather, Elias, and their gathering cannot be stopped. Darkness grows in the heart of the Empire, and it will grow more still, until it covers this land. War comes. And it must come. For a great wrong must be righted, a wrong that grows greater with every life destroyed. The war is the only way. And you must be ready.”

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