13 Aug 2015

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Release Date: 1st January 2015
Publisher: HarperVoyager
Page Count: 400
Format: Paperback | Purchased

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Synopsis (from GR): Set in a terrifyingly brutal Rome-like world, An Ember in the Ashes is an epic fantasy debut about an orphan fighting for her family and a soldier fighting for his freedom. It's a story that's literally burning to be told. LAIA is a Scholar living under the iron-fisted rule of the Martial Empire. When her brother is arrested for treason, Laia goes undercover as a slave at the empire's greatest military academy in exchange for assistance from rebel Scholars who claim that they will help to save her brother from execution. ELIAS is the academy's finest soldier-- and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias is considering deserting the military, but before he can, he's ordered to participate in a ruthless contest to choose the next Martial emperor. When Laia and Elias's paths cross at the academy, they find that their destinies are more intertwined than either could have imagined and that their choices will change the future of the empire itself. Vow your blood and body to the empire. Keep your heart for yourself.

My thoughts: I have been thinking about this book for weeks after I finished it. I've been trying to put into words how it made me feel - because it made me feel lots of things. It made me angry. It made me feel raw, blind hatred. This book was gripping - when I wasn't reading, I was thinking about it. It was The Raven Boys all over again - I avoided this book because of all the hype surrounding it, and when I finally gave in, I was like damn

An Ember in the Ashes takes place in a Roman Empire-esque world with references to Arabic and Islamic folklore. We follow the journeys of two characters: Laia is a Scholar in search of her older brother, Darin, who has been imprisoned by the Martials. In order to rescue him, Laia aligns herself with the Resistance and strikes a deal with Mazen, the Resistance leader: she will spy on the Commandant and pass information to the Resistance, and the Resistance will help free her brother. Elias is a Mask (an elite soldier) and the Commandant's son. Desperate to escape Blackcliff Academy, the training ground for Masks, he instead finds himself a competitor in the Trials; his prize becoming the next Emperor. 

This book is a really good example of crossover YA: while it's target audience is teens, there is nothing juvenile about it, and there is much about it that will appeal to adults (I am living proof of this). It is more slowly-paced than most YA I read, yet it never lacks in action. Blackcliff Academy is nasty. The Empire is nasty. The students at Blackcliff display a complete lack of empathy and no mercy whatsoever; some were downright villainous. Nobody blinks an eye at the idea of a slave being raped - and at one point, Laia is offered as a 'prize' for Elias. However: while rape is often threatened, referenced, and accepted as "the way the world is," it never appears on the page. Tahir has managed to make it threatening without any gratuitous sexual assault (which happens all to often in YA - Divergent and Across the Universe are the first books that spring to mind).

The stakes are high in this world. For Laia, there's the threat of rape and torture if she displeases the Commandant (who is a complete sociopath) - and death awaits both Laia and Elias if they're caught. I was constantly on the edge of my seat, genuinely afraid for Laia and Elias. My eyebrows were constantly raised at the unfair treatment Laia received for being born a Scholar while simultaneously feeling powerless to stop it. I could feel the oppression and Laia's desperation for it to end. It's been awhile since I was able to emotionally connect to a book like this, and I was pleasantly surprised. I think that it is also important to note that both protagonists are faced with difficult choices and actions that cannot be taken back. The message is clear: surviving in this world will cost you dearly. 

The only thing that I didn't enjoy was the presence of two love triangles. I could deal with the one between Laia, Elias, and Keenan because I feel like it was strategic. Even though Laia didn't make a choice between Elias and Keenan, the end-game was pretty obvious (like, as obvious that Harry/Ginny and Hermione/Ron were end-game in Harry Potter), so I'd like to see it resolved in the second book. However: the love triangle between Laia, Elias and Helene was completely unnecessary and added nothing to the story. I would love to see YA stop being so damn focused on romantic relationships, if only because romantic relationships are not the be all and end all of life. Friendships and familial relationships are every bit as instrumental, if not more, to an individual's growth and development as a person as romantic relationships; which is why I loved Laia and Darin's relationship and the lengths she would go to rescue him. 

An Ember in the Ashes was a fantastic start to what I hope will be a brilliant trilogy, and I cannot wait for the second installment!

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