I’m a little nervous this review. I AM. Mostly because I didn’t have a positive experience with An Ember in the Ashes, and I know so many people love it! But I do want to talk (logically, I hope?) about what went wrong for me. SO THIS IS GOING TO BE A LONG POST. I think it’s the longest review I’ve ever written (!!) All spoilers will be hidden. All feelings will not.
Proceed with cautious. I am not a cuddly pineapple* today.
* If, in fact, pineapples are ever cuddly. We have sort of acidic juice and prickly fronds. BUT I DIGRESS.
I had high expectations for An Ember in the Ashes! I did! I absolutely flailed with happiness when I (super luckily) received a review copy. And just to add in a bit of perspective, my friends Jeann and Brett both loved it! I highly recommend checking out their reviews. Reading is so subjective.
- WHERE IS THE WORLD-BUILDING? One thing I need (and love) in fantasies, is to be sucked into another world. For the first time, EVER, I actually paused my reading and thought, “Gee, I wish this author had a pinterest or some sort of visuals I could see so I could get a better grip on the setting.” Um…that’s not good. The book should show me the setting. It should spark my imagination! But I felt I had next to nothing to work with. The description is sparse and the history is null. I don’t know HOW the hierarchy began. I don’t know WHY the slaves are slaves. I don’t understand WHAT kind of world it is. I just can’t see it…and that bothers me 100%.
- ALSO, IS THIS DYSTOPIAN OR HIGH FANTASY? I assumed fantasy, but people are shelving it as dystopian on Goodreads!! And that does make s difference. The dialogue in An Ember in the Ashes is overly modern — and if this is dystopian that makes sense. But there’s NOTHING ELSE to indicate it is. Help.
- LET’S TALK ABOUT THAT SUPER MODERN DIALOGUE, YES? Now I like modern writing…in the right books. In fantasy? Not so much. Here are a few phrases they were saying:
“Not gonna do it.”
“What’s the catch?”
I am full of it, of course.
- THE SETTING IS HEAVILY BASED ON THE ROMANS…BUT IT LACKS THE DISCIPLINE. I’m pretty sure Roman soldiers didn’t walk around molesting and strangling their slaves, like straight after they walk out of a meeting with a superior officer. Students were flayed for being late. But if they were walking past a slave and stopped to rape her, that’s okay. I get that it’s a “we are superior to slaves” attitude. But it didn’t make sense to me at all in terms of one minute they’re super-strictly-disciplined and the next it’s all eh-who-cares-free-for-all.
- RAPE IS USED AS A “SHOCK FACTOR” AND NOT ACTUALLY AN ADVANCEMENT TO THE PLOT. In a historical-based fantasy world, yes, rape is a reality. But I felt it was thrown in here for the “brutal factor”. It’s threatened every. other. chapter. which wears thin.
- THE ROMANCE DIDN’T WORK FOR ME. NOT EVEN A LITTLE. How am I supposed to ship these two narrators?! Elias and Laia couldn’t be WORSE for each other. Their relationship had no spark and definitely no embers (har har). Elias has so much chemistry with his bestfriend and soldier companion, Helene. They were PERFECT for each other. They worked well together, they sizzled with backstory and secrets and bonds forged in battle. And yet…I totally feel the book is desperately trying to pitch Elias and Laia together. It would be the worst thing in the world. I will cry.
- IT’S REALLY EXTREMELY VIOLENT…BUT THE VIOLENCE IS POINTLESS. It barely ever advanced the plot. It was mostly all for a SHOCK FACTOR for the readers. For me, when violence is used cheaply, it just becomes distasteful. I want to be filled with righteous anger so I can mount my warhorse and demand the villains’ heads! I wanted to be horrified and scared! Not…disgusted. But in this? I just wanted it to all stop, because nothing made sense. No reason. No logic. Just let’s gouge everyone’s eyes out for lolz to show that the Commandant is a sicko. Which we kinda picked up already.
I had teeth-grinding difficulty during the trials too. Just the illogicalness of it!
Basically, the empire has picked the best 4 kids from the brutal military academy to compete for title of Emperor. Smart, no? The only way to get through these trials is to be as cruel and bloody as possible. To prove you’re worthy to rule?? Because that makes sense. Not. But that aside… I just kept feeling like the trials were only designed to be violent, cruel and bloody instead of actually getting the contestants to PROVE who is worthy to rule. So sure, they fought supernatural ghouls — but they were never tested on IMPORTANT STUFF like making battle tactics, showing leadership of armies, or showing understand of politics or justice. It was just “GIVE THE KID A SWORD AND IF HE KILLS ALL THE THINGS HE CAN BE KING. YEAAAAAH.” Which makes, like, no sense.
But I gotta talk this out, folks. More spoilers below. WATCH OUT.
As you know by now, the book is dual narrated by Elias and Laia. He’s the military kid, she’s the slave girl.
Laia is a commoner, growing up with her grandparents after her parents (who worked for the Resistance) were murdered. In the first chapter, Laia’s brother gets shipped off to a torturous prison for for fraternising with the Resistance. Laia’s only hope is to go to the Resistance (omg, no) and bargain with them to get her brother out. From the way they treat her from the get-go, I knew the Resistance/Rebels were bad news. IT’S SO OBVIOUS. It was so hard to read, knowing Laia is getting screwed over. They send her to be a spy/slave in the Military Academy to get “information” in exchange for busting her brother out. She agreed before she’d even made a bargain. She didn’t even know how to be a spy.
I did like Laia. She was cute and sweet and rather (oddly) innocent (considering she had her parents/sister/grandparents murdered). But Laia was a character I easily cared about.
…because I’m being far too negative and I apologise for that…
Evidently, I had a tough time with this book — but there are still positives!! I PROMISE THERE ARE. So how about some things I loved?!
- The writing was really crisp and addictive and easy to follow.
- The story line was slow at the beginning. I felt it took 100-pages to get everyone into position, BUT! After that! The action was balanced well with the quiet moments, and I kept flipping pages anxiously.
- I really loved Helene and Elias! I LOVED THEM. I ship them so dreadfully hard.
- It was seriously dark and gritty, which was fabulous to read, because so often I think books promise to be historically realistic and then shy away. (Although, it’s still nowhere near as brutal as Game of Thrones or Red Rising.)
- Loads of action!
- Lots of creepy psychopaths to keep an eye on and hope they don’t do anything too horrific.
- There was a fair bit of supernatural things going down, which surprised me, but HEY. I’m all for terrifying night demonic thingies and spiritual mind readers called Augurs.
- HAIL CEASAR. SOMEONE STABBED CEASAR. *runs away screaming*
ALL IN ALL:
I liked the characters and the writing, but so many plot holes just make me cry. It’s still not a bad read! I still say give it a go! Particularly if you like gritty books and you’re more likely to get embroiled with the character’s emotions than the plot details. (My brain really zeroes in on that kind of thing, but yours might not and this could totally be your next favourite read.) It has a wicked cliffhanger that totally makes me want the sequel.
THANK YOU HARPERCOLLINS FOR THE REVIEW-COPY. An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir was published in June, 2015.
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.