An Ember in the Ashes is a thought-provoking, heart-wrenching and pulse-pounding read. Set in a rich, high-fantasy world with echoes of ancient Rome, it tells the story of a slave fighting for her family and a young soldier fighting for his freedom.
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 realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.
Ok let me get one thing out of the way from the start... I don't usually read much YA fiction. It's not that I have anything against YA books, because I don't, I just have so much to read from other genres that I usually don't have much time to delve into the YA market. But after reading An Ember in the Ashes I now realise that I need to make more time. I absolutely loved this book, for so many reasons that are too numerous to address properly within the confines of this review. I will however try and give you some idea about why you should immediately run out and buy it!
An Ember in the Ashes is set in one of the most intricate, layered, and brutal worlds I have read this year. The Empire is very reminiscent of Ancient Rome, with an Emperor at the top wielding absolute power over all those below them. Violence and oppression are commonplace, and torture and rape are considered socially acceptable. The Empire is very brutal, and the oppressed (for example the Scholars) face the very real threat of death every day. The reader is propelled into this dark and very gritty world from the start, and Tahir doesn't shy away from it at all throughout the entire book. Blackcliff Academy is depicted wonderfully, and I found myself drawn to, yet horrified, by the atmosphere there. Whippings, beatings, and other forms of horrendous torture and violence are employed to highlight the lengths the Empire goes to to forge their Masks, the brutal and sadistic killers of the Empire. I adored this world building and the darkness it encapsulated, and it made those moments of hope and love throughout the text stand out more when they did happen.
The two main protagonists of An Ember in the Ashes are also wonderfully depicted and executed. Laia is a Scholar who has lost everything. The Empire have killed her grandparents and taken her brother, and she is burdened by survivors guilt from this throughout the book. After seeking out the Resistance, who may be her brothers only hope, she finds herself with going undercover as a slave at the Blackcliff Military Academy. The other protagonist is Elias, a trainee Mask whose conscious and empathy have not been eradicated by the horrendous training regime at Blackcliff. Elias find himself struggling with becoming a Mask, and he dreams for people to see beyond his role as a killer to view his true self. Each protagonist has demons that have been forced upon them by the Empire, and they struggle to deal with these every day. Their relationship and its evolution is also what drives this story to an incredible level. It is subtle, hopeful, and paced brilliantly. After meeting they find themselves attracted to each other, but their romance develops slowly and naturally as they each attempt to deal with the events that take over their lives. Mistakes happen, and each learns from the other, as they grow closer amidst the brutality and darkness that surrounds them at Blackcliff. Their inner turmoil over what they must do is also structured and executed well. Elias has to kill in order to win freedom, and Laia must make truly bad decisions in order to save her brother, no matter what the cost.
The action and fight scenes were also well executed but not all that common, with Tahir relying instead on excellent character development and conflict to draw you in and lock onto your heart. The language Tahir writes with also contributes to this. You are swept up in the amidst the brutal landscape into the beautiful and soulful way this book is written, and it is incredibly hard to put down. A satisfying, yet open finale, complete this wonderful tale that had me moved emotionally for days after I had finished. That is the sign of a truly great story!
All in all An Ember in the Ashes is a one of the most poetic yet brutal reads I've had in years. Laced with tender compassion and hope amidst a world of dark and vicious brutality, Tahir has masterfully weaved a magnificent tale of love, humanity, and destiny. Whilst An Ember in the Ashes is apparently a standalone, it would not surprise me if we saw more soon from this universe. A must read that will make you a fan of YA forever.
4 out of 5 stars.