The Dead Fire of An Ember in the Ashes

Rating: 4/5 stars

Review: Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes is not as fiery as I expected for something that’s received so much attention.

The main draw would be for fans of ancient Roman culture and dystopian-style fantasy who can overlook a love-at-first-sight romance.

The novel follows two characters–the slave scholar Laia and the elite soldier Elias–as they struggle to escape their destinies. When Laia’s brother is taken from her, she runs. Her guilt and her desire to save him leads her to join up with the Resistance, a group of rebels who are not all they seem. Around the same time the Resistance places her as a spy in Blackcliff, the military academy Elias attends, Elias is one of four selected for the Trials, a competition to rule an empire for which he has no love. Their paths intertwine as they resist all odds to fight the Martial Empire.

I was particularly excited for this book because it was advertised as a stand-alone. Stand-alone fantasy novels (particularly in YA) are few and far between, likely because much of the first book is spent world-building.

But this is not a stand-alone book.

By Part III, I realized there was not nearly enough time for an empire to be overthrown. The first objective established–retrieving Laia’s brother–isn’t even finished in this novel. It’s no surprise to me, then, that the publishers recently announced a sequel. Why this would ever pass as a stand-alone, I don’t know.

The Martial empire is indeed an interesting world. The ancient Roman inspiration can be found in everything from the Trials and government structure to character names. Tahir clearly put a lot of work into world-building, and her efforts paid off.

I also respect the book for Tahir’s ability to juggle two speakers. It’s difficult to build an interesting plot, develop characters, and build a strong voice from two perspectives. And I appreciated having a cowardly protagonist in Laia.

While Laia’s character was realistic in her tendency to run away from a fight, Elias’s character was unrealistic in that he still had a soul. How could he not be broken after all the obstacles Blackcliff threw at him? He didn’t even have a faith of any kind to cling to. Horrible as it is, the only reason I see for him to not commit suicide in attempting to desert sooner or to not have a broken soul is for plot convenience.

And while we’re on the topic of unrealistic… I can’t buy into the romance in this novel, be it between Laia and Keenan, Laia and Elias, or Helene and Elias (yes there really are love triangles for both main characters). I’m sorry, but a scholar-scholar or elite-elite relationship makes much more sense than the scholar-elite relationship (Laia and Elias) the author seems to prefer. I mean, at least the other pairings have a chance for couple names (Laias? Elaia? Doesn’t come off as good as Kaia or Helias).

So while An Ember in the Ashes has an intriguing premise and successful use of two speakers, I cannot give it five stars because the romance feels flat to me. To be fair, the love triangles weren’t obnoxious and the love-at-first-sight romance is a personal pet peeve of mine. Perhaps this book is worse in my eyes because my expectations were so high.

Recommendation: An Ember in the Ashes contains some violence (branding, maiming, disfigurement) and rape of scholars by Masks is brought up frequently. I would recommend this series for high school students who enjoy the Geisha trilogy, The Hunger Games, and The Winner’s Curse series.

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