Total Star Rating: 4.25 Stars
How was I supposed to know that I would absolutely fall in love with a random book that I just happened to grab off the shelf to fill a 14-hour international flight?
I absolutely devoured this story in almost no time at all; it completely immersed me into the ancient Romanesque Empiric rule of Serra; I saw myself using the shadows as my shield by moonlight with a dangerous & ominous feeling in the air. My chest was tight with fear and panic as I twisted through the winding back alleyways while trying to escape the malicious masked soldiers, their yells and warnings heard just behind me, and the only thing driving me forward is the small shred of hope for escape and a chance at a better world.
This book is a rare occurrence in the fact that it invokes such raw emotion from you, the reader. Whether its joy, sorrow, or rage; one thing that is certain is that this story latches onto your hearts if you choose to read it. It takes the breath right out of your lungs as a chill runs down your spine. For Young Adult/Teen Fantasy, it certainly doesn’t read like it truly belongs within the genre; the only criteria that supports the fact is that the two protagonists are within the age range. It’s brutal, it’s sadistic, it’s dark and unpredictable because every character faces life altering events with the ever present threat of searing pain and death.
Sabaa Tahir is an evil genius; for her debut work, she has truly created a masterful work of a novel filled with a harsh, ancient & corrupt world with such diverse, and well developed characters. An Ember in the Ashes is an addictive, high octane, epic debut that will take the literary world by storm, one reader at a time.
What It’s About:
The story takes place in the Capital City, Serra, in an ancient world that has been taken over by the militaristic, sadistic Empire (Who was inspired the occupation of the Roman Empire). The land used to be ruled by the Scholars, but are now either enslaved or forced into a rough, poverty-stricken life.
Martial soldiers named “Masks” because of the silver masks they wear to cover their features prowl the streets like packs of ravenous wolves, but amongst the carnage, underneath all the oppression, pain, violence, and spilt blood; the Resistance grows with a burning desire for freedom that refuses to be extinguished.
The story is told from two perspectives, one of from Laia, who is a young Scholar slave that lives with her older brother and grandparents after the deaths of her parents, who were leaders in the Resistance. Because of their loss at a young age, they learned to keep their heads low, not to draw attention to themselves, and live amongst the other impoverished citizens of the capital city. One night during a raid, her life is twisted and torn from her grasp, and leaves her alone and utterly terrified. Her brother is taken as a prisoner by Masks under the accusation of treason, and with nowhere else to go, she seeks out the same group her parents lead in order to save him and get him back. They agree to assist her, but only under the condition that she must infiltrate the military training school, Blackcliff Academy, as a personal slave to spy on the Commandant, the Empire’s cruelest general.
Then there’s Elias Veturius, the son of the Commandant, and the reluctant star student of Blackcliff who is about to graduate after it’s 14 year enrollment. Ever since he was brought into his elite family, Elias has been bred and formed into becoming the Empire’s perfect soldier and to continue it’s legacy, but as he’s grown more into himself, he’s wanted nothing more than to escape from the scrutiny, the expectations, and to just run away and be free. After certainly unexpected circumstances, he’s thrust into a competition amongst several of his schoolmates; the winner will become the next Emperor.
Elias and Laia meet, and while a definite spark strikes, they both learn that their destinies are intertwined and heavily rely on each other, that prophecies and secret plans are being set in motion and dark & sinister creatures, long thought to be just myth, do in fact exist. They rage, they burn, and they intend to destroy.
What I Liked:
- The Iconic Characters & Their Growth! Both major and minor, all the characters within this story truly shine and add so much excitement to the story. Laia and Elias are amazing characters that you can get behind and relate to, but there was also a plethora of other characters that act as large pillars that hold the story intact and provide the ability to keep it’s splendor. There’s Helene, who’s such a strong, fierce female warrior who has been Elias’s best friend for many years, but harbors a secret longing for him while also competing against him for the role of Emperor. There’s the Commandant, who was so great that she earned her own spot on this list below, where I will go into more detail as well. Another one is Cain, who is a part of a group of mysterious monks with magical abilities called the Augurs, who guides both Laia and Elias and merely hints at what’s to come in their futures. There’s Cook, a disfigured older woman whose title is her name, helps Laia but is definitely keeping secrets of her own. There’s Markus, Elias’s rival who is completely merciless and vile. There’s Spiro Teluman, a blacksmith who Laia meets up with in order to find answers. There’s so many more people to add, but these were the ones that especially stood out to me. There was also a lot of development within the story and the character’s initial arc. Laia is absolutely terrified of the war that she’s become involved with, but becomes so brave as she faces against everything that weighs her down, and all for the unlikely hope to be reunited with her brother. Helene, who shows very little compassion to those stationed below her, learns to see others in a new light, and Elias learns the difficult lessons of living up to expectations and when it conflicts with personal desire.
- The Brutality! From the very first chapter, you’re thrust into the violence of the world that the author created. There’s murder, kidnapping, slavery, attempted rape, vicious torture, sexism and abuse in pretty much every form. While some are probably less than thrilled about these subjects occurring in a YA novel, I wholeheartedly thought that it made the story so much more worthwhile, causing it to soar high above all the other titles that more conservative readers would consider “safer.” Tahir exposes us to the harsh brutality of it all, as she should because let’s face it; it’s out there and it’s happening in the real world. It’s not pretty, it’s not glamorous; but amongst all the darkness and heaviness that this story entails, it gave me much respect to the author for going there, and exposing it for the raw reality that it is in a brilliant way.
- The Mystery & Unpredictability! Along with the brutality, the unpredictable sub plots that were all happening throughout added so much excitement and drive to keep reading. (Here I go with yet another GoT reference), but it was similar to how I was immediately drawn into it because when even the main characters are in actual danger, and you find yourself legitimately fearing for their lives, you know you’ve found something worthwhile. Cain, the Augur, was especially great at adding the love/frustration for this aspect; he would sometimes only speak in riddles when asked to elaborate, and you groan out loud and want to slap him. WHAT ARE YOU SAYING? WHAT DOES IT MEAN? I DON’T NEED SLEEP, I NEED ANSWERS!
- The World-building! While it even says in the pitch about the book that it’s inspired by the rule of Roman Empire in ancient times, the author adds so much more to it and created a compelling world filled with a violent history. It was especially fun to see that she mixed in some elements of her own nationality of being Arabic into the story, especially with the mythology and magical aspects. The Middle East; with it’s culture, religion, and mythicism, is incredibly underrepresented in media and having it be showcased in this story not only shows the authors pride for her background, but also helps create something that feels fresh and original. Jinn, which from my impression are the Arabic version of demons, will have a major role to play in the outcome of this series. I also found the silver masks that the Martial soldiers wore with their uniforms incredibly interesting, filled with representation similar to what English teachers love to force down our throats in the classics that they assign students to read. They’re actually quite simple in terms of design, but as the soldier continues to wear it, it forms to the shape of their face until it’s impossible to remove. It makes me think of how it dehumanizes the person that wears it; they go from being an individual soul with emotions, hopes and fears to becoming just another face of the tyranny; a desensitized and apathetic soldier whose only purpose is to enforce and/or kill anyone who doesn’t stay down.
- Love Square? Or Pyramid? Laia and Elias for sure get the hots for each other, but there are other players that put their names into the hat, thus creating the timeless story arc of YA in having a love triangle. The big difference for this story is that there’s actually, like, two that go on at once. While initially weary of Elias and his family name, Laia finds herself drawn to Keenan, a brash and sarcastic rebel warrior who aids her along the way of her painful mission. Laia finds herself having mixed feelings for both boys and is torn by them and what they each represent. Elias, who is intrigued by his mother’s new slave with the striking golden eyes, also learns that his life-long friend Helene has been harboring secret feelings for him, and even finds himself wondering if he feels the same. Unlike a lot of other titles in the genre, the romance doesn’t take lead in the story at all. While it is present, the characters truly see the higher stakes that surround them, and don’t allow their raging hormones to distract them. The book never makes readers think that it’s more important to choose between one hot guy or the other over making the hard decisions and overcoming adversity.
- The Cliffhanger Ending! I loved it, but also absolutely freakin’ HATED it at the same time. It comes with the territory of cliffhangers to feel like the book abruptly stops in order to make you want to keep going along with the story, and this one is no different. While I applaud Sabaa Tahir for invoking such strong emotions from me, I want to be furious with her too. I think certain authors get a sick thrill of how they torture us with their work.
- The Villain! Can we talk about the Commandant? Because HOLY SHIT…you guys, if you read this story and introduce yourself to her, you’ll meet probably one of the most iconic female villains EVER in all of fiction. She makes you stop reading the book, blink and whisper “holy shit”… several times while cocooned underneath your covers with eyes as wide as dinner plates late at night. Think of her as Cersei Lannister, but if she had the Mountain’s physical aversion to violence, and somehow has even LESS empathy or compassion than the lioness who GoT fans absolutely despised. While not batting an eyelash or showing an ounce of emotion, the Commandant would slowly rip out your fingernails, impale a rusty nail through your eyeball, cut off limbs and brand or carve her initials into your flesh; she’s an absolute psychotic sociopath. There’s even more to her as the story develops; it turns out that she’s working with a dark, mystical and ominous hooded figure known as the Nightbringer. The Nightbringer is the king of the Jinn, therefore the ruler of demons, and while it’s not revealed who exactly he is or what it is that they’re plotting, it certainly means to doom them all…
What I Didn’t Like:
- The Pacing…The first half of the story can drag on for quite a bit because of the slower scenes and possibly because of the fact that it’s told from both Laia and Elias’s perspectives. They actually don’t spend a whole lot of time together; they may only have about a handful of scenes where they actually interact. This just means that they simply have their own separate storylines going on and that the book jumps to the other after a cliffhanger at the end of each chapter. The pacing felt like it was a little uneven at some points; it would go from 0 to 100 real quick, but then would go back down to 0 almost just as quickly, so you might find yourself tempted to skim over the slower parts in order to return to the faster, more epic events that take place. Yeah…don’t do that. Luckily, this mainly only takes place in the first half of the story, and stays at a more consistent and exciting level from then on.
- The Series Rebrand…So how would you feel if in the middle of a series, it all of a sudden has a rebrand and changes the whole outer appearance? I’m personally someone who is picky of how my personal bookshelf appears and how the titles within a series match to each other. For example, having a paperback edition amongst Hardcovers, or having mismatching cover designs. It’s a bit OCD of me, but cry me a river; I’m passionate about books and as a former art student, I hope others can understand when I say it’s all about the aesthetic. Basically the covers of the first two novels in the series started off as this:
But then they go to this:
The rebrand made its debut with the release of the third book in the series, A Reaper At the Gates, was released on June 12th 2018, and so the newer covers above are paperback editions to match. Honestly, I totally get that the reason behind this was that Sabaa Tahir wanted better representation for her ethnicity, especially for Laia, and I can fully support that. Also, both designs are absolutely stunning (YA Cover Designs have been ON POINT over the last several years and deserve to have their own awards show), but it now means that I HAD to get the new designs of the first two novels, but now they’re paperbacks compared to the hardcover third novel…I know this sounds ridiculous, petty and you’re probably thinking “Why does this matter?” I can’t really explain it, but it’s the way I am, so no apologies there. I just need things, especially my book collection, to match; I’m an OCD passionate book enthusiast. Luckily, I don’t mind giving up my money in order to help support the author, and It’s recently been revealed that a Barnes & Noble hardcover special edition with the new design will come out in the Fall of 2019, so y’all know I’m about to get all up on that!
I can’t recommend this book enough you guys…It’s truly spectacular, and I really connected with everything that this story is about and all the characters that it includes. I still shake my head at how I actually accidentally happened upon this book in Barnes and Noble back in 2015, when there was so little hype or anything known about it. I don’t know if that means I’m supposed say something deep, prophetic, and quotable about giving a chance on the unexpected, taking the plunge into something new and unfamiliar, but ehh… It’s honestly just so great to find something that causes you to feel something so strongly, to cause adoration, and feel so passionately about. This is one of my top 5 books of all time for anyone to read, even to those who pretentiously scoff at the idea of reading a Young Adult title. It’s only the beginning of a magnificent series, and if this is only her debut novel, I have a feeling that Sabaa Tahir could be destined to become one of the all time greatest authors, and I for one cannot wait to see it unfold!
Thanks for Reading!
— Nick Goodsell