Before I read An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, I constantly heard it being compared to The Hunger Games. I find these comparisons to be unnecessary. An Ember in the Ashes does not need to ride on the coattails of The Hunger Games. It is a New York Times bestseller. It is fully its own work, and can stand on its own! Every new release is not the second coming of The Hunger Games. Some of these marketers need to chill out. Okay, my rant is over!
Anyway, the premise of the novel is that in a place called the Martial Empire (inspired by Ancient Rome, ohhh!), a teenage girl named Laia has to undergo slavery at the Blackcliff Military Academy in order to help free her brother from imprisonment. Meanwhile, the other main character, Elias, is trying to escape from his life at Blackcliff and his future as an elite soldier for the empire. Elias is later selected to enter a series of trials to become the next emperor. The events therein affect both Laia and Elias and bring them together.
Interesting premise, right? There’s a lot to love about An Ember in the Ashes! I characterize it as one of the books that helped me get back into Y.A. I can sort the strengths of the novel into three categories.
One, I love the world that the story is set in.
I mentioned that it is inspired by Ancient Rome, but it is actually a mix of a few different cultures. Some of the names used in the book are inspired by Urdu words or are Urdu words. There are also elements from Islamic mythology such as jinn and “efrits” in the story, as well!
The government of the Martial Empire definitely connotes Ancient Rome. The way colonization is conceptualized in the book also feels like it comes from ancient Roman ideologies (as well as ideologies from more recent empires *cough* *cough*). I hadn’t read a book before that was so overtly based on Ancient Rome, and it was fascinating to see how Tahir interwove historical aspects of different cultures with fantasy elements, making one epic world.
Another detail that I loved was the writing.
Tahir has a way of writing sparsely but still beautifully. She can impart a lot of meaning without complicating the prose. I can be a big fan of verbose prose, but I think her style of simple, elegant writing really helps convey the bleakness of the situation at Blackcliff and helps to center the action of the characters.
I also loved the complexity of the social and familial dynamics in the story.
The stark setting is a great background to explore questions of class. Laia comes from the Scholar class, which was overtaken by the Martial Empire. She has to navigate the novel as a person whose family was overtaken by a colonizing force. At the same time, as a soldier, Elias sees the evil that the empire has committed, has been complicit in that evil, and is trying to escape.
The empire is an obvious force of evil, but there are no clear “good guys” to turn to. Readers learn quickly that there is a resistance, but there are factions and problematic people within the resistance who also need to be fought. I like the message that this sends. Even within a group of people who purport to be fighting evil, trust your instincts. Not everyone is who they say they are.
Perhaps even more complex than this is Tahir’s exploration of family dynamics. She explores the ways that families can fail each other. She explores the possibility of family members not loving each other. I thought these were some of the most moving parts of the book. I won’t get into specifics for fear of spoilers, but the point that Tahir is establishing is that sometimes familial love is created, and is not just limited to blood relatives. Sometimes people who aren’t related by blood can become your family, and it can be lovely.
One of the aspects of the book that I didn’t like were the love triangles.
Or should I call it a love rectangle? Okay, don’t get your pitchforks just yet. I enjoy a good love triangle. I just like romantic relationships that are slow-burn and built up over time. It’s hard for me to like instant chemistry between characters, which the main love interests definitely have. There just wasn’t enough build up for me to automatically like the romantic dynamics between the two characters. It didn’t feel natural. The fact that each of the main characters have two love interests also felt a little unnatural to me. Mirroring them in that way felt contrived. I do have every confidence that the relationships will develop in more interesting ways over the course of the series.
While I really like the world that the story takes place in, I think that the worldbuilding could have been a little more detailed.
I personally like a lot of worldbuilding. Not to the point that the story gets bogged down in it, but I like to feel that I know enough about a book that I could act somewhat like a denizen of the world. I found myself wanting to know more about the day to day living patterns of the characters. I like learning little details about currency and regional differences. Tahir did such a good job with the big details of the world, that I would like to see how she expands upon them in the upcoming novels in the series.
Overall, I thought this was a great book, and I recommend it for all teenaged and older readers who can handle some descriptions of violence.
I recommend this book.