An Ember in The Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

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.
 

Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes was one of the biggest young adult releases of last year and as a result it’s been in my to read list for a while. I’ve been eager to see whether this book could deliver on all the praise it’s received and to an extent, it does, however not without some problems on the way.

Set in a world inspired by Ancient Rome, An Ember in the Ashes offers two different sides of a coin as it follows two characters who are caught up in a revolution. It’s kind of like a young adult-ified version of The Departed with unfortunately two weak protagonists at its core. Whilst one character, Elias, who starts out on the side of the status quo as a trainee, does experience character growth, the same cannot be said for Laia who unfortunately remains a disappointment throughout the novel and feels like a far weaker YA protagonist than what we have seen in the past. I did actually love to hate the villain of the novel though, who was well crafted and a really powerful threat to the protagonists. So it’s clear with this book that certain characters are misses, but others sometimes work.

The book follows Elias and Laia through their perspectives and they spend a large portion of the novel apart. The characters each have problems of their own with Laia joining the Resistance and then going undercover to get her brother back and Elias becoming an increasingly disillusioned soldier. As well as echoes of The Departed I was also reminded of Claudia Grey’s Lost Stars In how things played out, with character-focus at the book’s core.

The pacing structure is flawed and the world building is also something that is fairly inconsistent. Although the book will keep you gripped everything seems to fall apart at the ending, which, like most trilogy-starters before it, particularly when it comes to new young adult novels, is set up with sequels in mind and unfortunately doesn’t finish on a strong note as the book started. The world building does have better foundations but could have used more thinking in certain departments, but on the whole thanks to how well written the book is these are mostly only small issues.

Despite its flaws, Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes is a really promising debut that is rich, engrossing and worth a read. It’s something that I’ll be returning to for sure.

VERDICT: 7/10

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