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.
Trigger Warning: Mentions of rape, assault, gore, slavery.
I’m going to preface this review by saying that the first time I read An Ember in the Ashes was back in 2016 when it first came out, and I’ve loved it ever since. Because it was so long ago that I read the series, I thought it was time for a re-read to prepare for A Reaper at the Gates (the third in the series). I was so engrossed the first time around that I couldn’t bring myself to make notes and formulate a review, and even this time, I had to force myself to think objectively and think about the points I wanted to include. In short, write something other than – READ THIS BOOK RIGHT NOW IT’S SO AMAZING AHHHHH.
I’m gonna give it a go, at least.
“Fear is only your enemy if you allow it to be.”
The plot of this book is extremely intricate, and little threads are woven throughout the narrative so that it could possibly be confusing, but Sabaa Tahir has such skill at making information stick. She really is able to strike a balance between the plot being complex, but not bogged down with too much.
Because the story is told in dual perspective between Elias and Laia, we get the point of view and the political climate of the opposing sides, and watching them overlap and intertwine is so satisfying. This book almost made me feel like I was following the breadcrumbs of a mystery thriller, but with the added exhilaration of magic and the high stake fantasy setting. I was constantly on the fringes between cringing, crying, or punching the air.
This book also has the trial trope so if you love a good tournament/competition (especially when they’re lethal), you know where to look. Warning: it will rip your heart out.
“Once, I’d have wanted that. I’d have wanted someone to tell me what to do, to fix everything. Once, I’d have wanted to be saved.”
The setting of this series is one of my favourite. You can always feel the atmosphere and character the setting of Serra and Blackcliffe exudes, and its presence has such an impact on the story. It heightens the stakes and the tension and just pulls you in that bit further.
However, I also really loved how the settings were interpreted differently between characters, which is something I eat up when it comes to world building. For some characters, a place was interpreted as home, by others a prison; some a place of horror and oppression, while others are blind to its faults. What I’m trying to get at here is that though magical creatures and elements are included, I found the setting to be very realistic.
“Safety is an illusion never to trust.”
The characters are by far my favourite element of this series. Never for a second, even in the very first chapter of their perspectives, did I feel like I didn’t immediately connect and understand them, or that they were two dimensional in any way. The detail with which Sabaa Tahir writes lends itself so perfectly to crafting deep, complex characters who have their flaws and qualities, and are uniquely human. Laia is my number one example of this, which is why she is my number one girl.
I LOVE Laia.
I loved her from my first time reading in 2016 and my love has grown for her even more. The reason I love her, however, seems to be the reason people in the book community don’t seem to. Now, this is a review and not a call out, but a lot of the critiques people have of Laia (that I’ve seen) I really don’t agree with. One of these is that Laia is a coward, or that she’s spineless and lacks the strength a protagonist needs to carry a POV. I… don’t understand this.
Laia is a scared teenager when her family is targeted, and she does the very understandable, very human thing that I think I’d do in that situation – run. People seem to base their criticisms and Laia’s character purely on this act, and ignore the fact that this is such a pivotal moment in her characterisation because she is plagued by guilt because of it. It is because of her decision to run that she forces herself to be brave and be strong, but it’s a gradual and realistic process. She makes mistakes and stumbles along the way but who wouldn’t?! People seem to hate on her initial naivety without realising that naivety is something that is dispelled with time and effort. Laia’s character development is fantastic and I dare anyone to fight me on it.
Also for the people who call her whiny for talking about her imprisoned brother who is the sole survivor of her family and probably being tortured every waking second, I think we can maybe give her a pass?
Elias also struggles with his demons in this book, and though I definitely became more engaged in his character in the second and third book, I still enjoyed his chapters. His insight into Blackcliffe as a Mask who can see past the prestige and privilege was very effective and made a nice contrast to Helene, who though badass and beautiful, is also a selfish white feminist undeserving of all the hype. Of course, in my humble opinion.
The side characters are also some of my favourites, Izzi among them. Izzi is a slave Laia befriends in Blackcliffe and unwillingly ropes into her mission for the Resistance. Her innocence, bravery, light humour, and friendship is beautiful.
I need to stop talking about characters now, but I think you get the idea.
“I’d rather die than live with no mercy, no honor, no soul.”
As you can tell, I really love this book and it really means a lot to me. I can assure you as someone who has read all three books currently out, that it only does get better and I highly encourage you to pick up Ember and support the wonderful Sabaa Tahir.
Have you read An Ember in the Ashes? Let me know and we can cry about it together!
Until the next one,