By Sabaa Tahir
To Sum It Up: Laia and her family are Scholars, a class brutally oppressed by the ruling Empire. When Laia’s brother is accused of being a rebel and imprisoned, Laia undertakes a dangerous mission to free him. The Resistance movement tentatively agrees to help her, but only if she infiltrates the walls of the infamous Blackcliff Military Academy, which trains the Empire’s future soldiers. Top student Elias Veturius is on the verge of graduating—with his loyalty to the Empire in question. But fate has other plans for Elias, and his service to the Empire may have only just begun.
Review: An Ember in the Ashes was one of the most hyped books of 2015, and for that reason alone, it secured a spot on my TBR. I’d also seen it compared quite a few times to A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, so I absolutely needed to check it out. I came this close to buying a copy; I actually held the book in my hands at Barnes & Noble but put it back in the end because it just wasn’t in the budget. Well, I’m glad that I opted to borrow this from the library instead because hardly anything about the novel, including the characters, the pacing, the world-building, and the romance, worked for me. Now, this book has received A LOT of love from other readers; I'm sorry to say that I'm not among them.
The comparisons to Game of Thrones led me to expect an epic fantasy here, but the fantasy elements were minimal, in my opinion. Jinn, efrits, and wraiths were occasionally thrown in, but the brutal, oppressive rule of the Empire gave An Ember in the Ashes a very dystopian feel. It reminded me more of Divergent, The Hunger Games, Legend, and Red Rising, the latter especially. As with Red Rising, I considered quitting An Ember in the Ashes after about 100 pages, but I’d already invested so much time in the book that I figured I might as well just tough it out till the end.
I had no problem whatsoever with this turning out to be more of a dystopia than fantasy, but the world-building was just lacking, regardless of the genre. Other than the abundantly clear picture of the Empire’s totalitarianism, this world didn’t make much sense to me. Blackcliff Military Academy, the elite school that churns out the Empire’s finest soldiers, is all-male except for one female student because that’s the policy. A new Emperor must be chosen through a contest to the death because a bunch of seers called Augurs say so. I needed further explanations for a lot of things, but I just didn’t get them.
Alternating POVs from the two main characters, Laia and Elias, are employed in the novel, but there’s little distinction between their narrative voices. Neither was an especially compelling protagonist, although if I had to pick between them, I’d go with Elias, whose arc had slightly better pacing. Laia’s storyline dragged, and I had issues with her character from the start. When Empire troops turn up at the home she shares with her grandparents and brother, Darin, to arrest Darin for rebellious activities, Laia has to choose between helping him and running. Darin tells her to run, and she does, and then she spends the next 400 pages regretting the decision. Okay, Darin did urge his sister to flee, but the way that the scene unfolded didn’t effectively convey the urgency of fight-or-flight to me. I think what gnawed at me was how Laia kept going on and on and on about how much she loved Darin and how she would do anything to bust him out of prison, but she didn’t make a stand when an opportunity literally stood right in front of her.
I also couldn’t suspend enough disbelief over how quickly and easily Laia ran into the rebel group that she hoped would help rescue Darin, the group that her parents used to lead. Laia approaches the Resistance with a rather large sense of entitlement because 1) rebels ratted Darin out to the Empire, so the Resistance now owes her, and 2) her parents were the greatest Resistance leaders ever, without question. But Laia is not quite so cut out for the family business of undermining the Empire, and she gets in way, way over her head when she agrees to spy on Blackcliff’s Commandant in return for the Resistance freeing Darin. Laia’s naïveté, coupled with some poor decision making, made her chapters really tough for me to get through.
I fared a little better with Elias’s POV, primarily because he winds up entangled in a Hunger Games-esque contest that will determine which Blackcliff student becomes the next Emperor. Even with the trope, at least the scenes with the Trials move at a solid pace, unlike the majority of the book. Both Elias and Laia are very, very chatty with their internal thoughts, which adds up to a lot of telling over showing.
The novel’s romance frustrated me most of all. Laia insta-falls for Keenan, a member of the Resistance. Elias sort of has feelings for his best friend, Helene, Blackcliff’s sole female student. But whenever Laia and Elias clap eyes on each other, it’s like, Keenan and Helene who? Put Laia and Elias back with their original love interests, though, and they return to their original feelings for them. Meanwhile, there’s barely any chemistry between any of these characters! I could somewhat buy into Elias and Helene’s friendship; I even thought that Helene might have made a more interesting female protagonist than Laia. As for the other pairings, there was zero build-up to the intense emotions that everyone suddenly felt for each other.
I really, really wanted to love An Ember in the Ashes like just about everyone in the universe did, but sadly, we were not compatible with each other at all. But, just as there’s another book out there that’s perfect for me, this book may perfectly suit another reader.
All in All: Fans of Red Rising may want to check this out. Unfortunately, An Ember in the Ashes came up short for me as both a fantasy and a dystopia, and I’m okay with not knowing what happens in the rest of the series.