Monday, July 18, 2016

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.

Rating: 3/5 Stars

“There are two kinds of guilt. The kind that's a burden and the kind that gives you purpose. Let your guilt be your fuel. Let it remind you of who you want to be. Draw a line in your mind. Never cross it again.”

This book is SO HYPED. Ever since it came out (and long after) I’ve seen glowing five start review after glowing five star review, and I just needed to know for myself how amazing this book was… so I read it! *pats herself on the back* and with the help of Charysse, nonetheless.

                               arrested development eye lucille bluth winking

Now I can finally share my opinion on this book!! And that is that An Ember in the Ashes was an ok read. It wasn’t horrible, but for me it wasn’t great either. It had really cool moments but it was so filled with YA tropes and generic plots that it didn’t feel amazing; it was enjoyable but forgettable.

Are you still reading? You don’t hate me? Alright then, let’s go!

The story is set in an ancient-Rome inspired setting (loosely, VERY loosely inspired) where the Martial Empire, ruthless and unbeatable in the art of war have conquered the Scholars, who prized knowledge and facts above all. Now the Scholars are forbidden from even learning how to read and have become the Martials' slaves.
Laia is a simple scholar girl trying to live her life away from trouble with her family, but when a Martial raid kills her grandparents and takes her only brother away under the charge of being a Rebel, she’ll seek for the rebels’ help and end up infiltrating the Martial’s most deadly place; Blackcliff Academy where young men are trained to become ruthless soldiers, and find information that could free her brother.
Elias is the top soldier of his class at Blackcliff, but he wants out. Desertion is punished by death but he’s ready to risk it if it means being free of the horrors he’ll have to inforce. But the Emperor’s line starts to die, and it’s time for a new heir to be chosen from Blackcliff’s finest and Elias name is among them.

As the story develops Laia and Elias will find themselves entangled in… whatever it is that’s happening at Blackcliff.

The world-building:

I’ll admit that it had been a good time since I last read the synopsis, so I didn’t know as much as I should have when I began reading. For instance, the fact that An Ember in The Ashes was based on a sort of ancient-Rome world. BUT in my defense, there were no clues at all in the book. I mean besides there being an Empire and War, the most Roman thing they do here is wear robes… once.


Kind of.

So I didn’t remember this was based on Roman culture until someone pointed it out in the comments.
Basically th world here consists of the Martial Empire, who is ruthless and… conquers (we don’t know if they have conquered any more civilizations or how their people are or what their history is, only that they are the ones who enslaved the Scholars). The Scholars are the latest conquest of the Martial Empire (again I have no idea whether they have conquered anybody else or how their economy runs or what the heck they even do), they loved preserving knowledge and hard facts but after they were conquered their emperor (did they have like a library or something where they savaged knowledge? How did their society work?) forbid them from learning how to read and just made them slaves.
Then there were also the Tribesmen that… I guess are nomads? They were described a bit like Gypsies so, maybe they were like that? I don’t know, they were mentioned once or twice (Elias foster family is Tribesmen, but we know little about their family structure, their society, language or anything of the sort).
I was a bit disappointed with this because I wanted to know more about the world in order to understand the story better. This is about conquest and war, yet we know very little of these people’s customs or ways except the very basic (the Martials are warriors, the Scholars intelectuals).
There were some elements of magic that I really liked, Ghouls and Jinns, etc. But they were mentioned a few times here and there and nothing else. Maybe this will be explored in the next installments since it looked like they would be more important in the future, but it would have been nice to see at least the legends people knew about these creatures or anything to have something in mind when they reappear (if they reappear). But they were still a nice addition.

The Characters:

The first chapter was in her POV, and it was SO SLOW. Basically, Laia is a coward, and I’m not saying it to be mean; her being a coward is the whole definition of her character it’s what she struggles with. Her mother was the Lioness, a woman known for her bravery and being fearless while Laia is constantly afraid. She struggles with trying to live up to her mother’s image knowing she was so brave while she’s unable to even speak sometimes, and although it was an interesting approach for her character, she wasn’t the best narrator the story could have had.

Look, I don’t want to say “Oh she should just suck it up and do stuff” because people react differently to these kinds of situations. I have no idea how I’d react if I were in her position (and I’m not looking forward to find that out!) for all I know, I could just piss myself and cry until someone killed me.


What I do know is that as a narrator she just didn’t work. This story is about mystery and war, it’s about running ahead of the clock to complete seemingly impossible missions against the Empire. And all Laia could do was say “I know I should do this, but I’m too afraid.”


It just slowed everything down! In her chapters we get to see the story through her eyes, but Laia won’t do or look at anything! She’s too afraid to speak, she’s too afraid to spy, she’s too afraid to listen (even though it made no sense because people were willingly giving her that information and she didn’t have to spy for it).

When I mentioned that the story was full of YA tropes, Laia was one of them. She’s your typical special snowflake (don’t worry, Elias is too) who is super shy and super pretty! And all the boys fall for her.

I didn’t understand why she was always running away, she’d have people trying to warn her about something, or trying to say something important to her, but she suddenly “couldn’t listen anymore” and would run dramatically away.

"Laia, wait-"
I don't hear the rest. I'm already out the door.


All as a plot to delay the revelation of said information and drag the story along.

Not to mention that her whole plan revolves on her spying for the rebels in the house of one of the most dangerous martials on Earth, and she’s THE WORST SPY EVER.
Really, she was terrible, and it made no sense because she would be super scared to do something simple and safe, but then would go out of her way to do dumb things that would get her in danger. She never thought things through, and it got annoying after sometime to keep reading things like:

“I’ll be whipped for reading something that doesn’t even make any sense. Why did I let her see me? Why wasn’t I more careful?”

“I think of the guards talking excitedly at Blackcliff’s gate as two horseman came up the road. Laia, you fool. If I’d paid closer attention to the auxe’s gossip, I might have learned which Aspirants had survived the Trail. I might have had something useful to tell the Resistance.”

“Darin?” I forget that this is a hallucination, that I’m in a Martial forge with a murderous-looking blacksmith yards away.

Seems like a good place to say the name of a known rebel, huh? Very smart.

“Why am I asking him so many questions? It’s not my place.”

And on and on and on it went, Laia was utterly useless. Although the reason behind her spying is revealed at the end (kind of predictable though) for me it didn’t justify her being the narrator. She was still frustrating as hell.

Laia kind of gets more interesting by the end, but not really enough to call my attention.


If Laia was the worst spy on Blackcliff, then Elias was the worst soldier in the Empire… which is weird because he was top of his class (hence the special snowflake-ness). The children chosen to be Masks come at the age of six, and from that point onward they are basically brainwashed into loving the Empire and dying for it. Elias is (as far as he knows) the only one who doesn’t agree with this vision. He hates the people he serves and the deaths he’s caused because of them, so he wants to escape. Problem is, the smallest sign of dissidence results in punishment or death. That’s why I can’t understand how on earth Elias is still alive, when he did a lot of dumb stuff that would easily expose him.
I mean, he is in his last day at the Academy. He needs to act perfectly normal or everybody will suspect he’s going to escape, AND HE KEEPS DOING DUMB SHIT THAT SINGLE HIM OUT!
He acts out of place, he publicly agrees with ways against the empire… I was really surprised that the guy had lived for so long.

His narrative wasn’t very interesting, mostly because it consisted of the Trials, which came out of the blue and didn’t seem to go with the rest of the story. That and the love triangle between him, Helene (his best friend) and Laia.

The amount of times this guy wondered whether he had feelings for his best friend and imagined how he wanted to lick her or push her against the walls were too many. Because, again! It came all out of nowhere, these feelings, these romances. They had little to do with the plot and just appeared one day and stayed for the sake of drama.

Laia’s chapters were more interesting to me because she was determined to spy and get her brother free, even if she did little to accomplish that. But what did Elaias have? He was in the Trails from time to time, then he was complaining about being stuck there, and then he was lusting after Laia and Helene.

The pace:

It wasn’t bad, the first chapter it took me some time to get used to Laia’s voice but then her missions, albeit annoying sometimes because she didn’t DO stuff, were some of the most entertaining parts of the story. I wanted to learn more with her and figure out what the Commandant was doing.

The Trails were what made the story really slow down because… well they looked kind of pointless. I think the issue for me here was that we didn’t know much about the Empire, Blackcliff, the Augurs or the Emperor before they started. But when Elias is going to desert one of the Augurs shows up like:

“Hey, I know you think I’m a phony and that I can’t read minds or be immortal, but I totally can! *proves it* Anyways, I know you’re going to escape, but you can’t, you have to stay or bad shit will happen.”

And the very next day we learn that there was one dude called Taius who was the, let’s say “original Emperor”. He was great, strong, amazing yadda yadda, but the Augurs predicted that his line would fall, so they created the Blackcliff to train new soldiers (the masks) so that when the time comes they get to do the Trails, tastes of strength to determine which warrior is the best of the best and gets to be the new Emperor. ANDDDDDD apparently the Augurs decided that the Trails had to happen RIGHT THEN and Elias was going to participate to become Emperor.

All of that, and I mean ALL of that sloppy recollection I just made was all delivered at once, pretty much like I just explained it. And that’s the whole explanation of why the Trails are in the story! It looked messy and didn’t fit with the rest of the narrative. There were hints and clues that showed there was something else going on there, but they’ll probably be discussed in the next books.

The ending was REALLY cool and kind of a let down all at once. You have this awesome battle near the end were SHIT WAS HAPPENING AND IT WAS AWFUL AND AMAZING AT ONCE. And then… it kind of slows down into something else? It was a very abrupt change, you have them all running into action and then… stops.

                                31 Biggest Dog Fails Of 2013

I mean, some stuff still happened there, but it wasn’t as amazing as what had happened before. So you had all of this amazing build up that led up to nothing.

The romance:


This was something that I could have been without, and I LOVE fantasy with a bit of romance, but it just had no point here. It was extreme insta-love that came out of nowhere.

Laia and Kennet:
Right off the bat, when Laia finds the resistance we meet Kennan, a guy who’s super gorgeous but treats Laia like crap. So you already know he’s going to be a love interest.


When she’s assigned her mission, Kennet is designed as her handler, and their “relationship” develops through forced interactions and Kennet suddenly caring whether she gets hurt or not, and Laia marvelling at the softness of his skin and his smell…

It was forced, there’s no other way to put it. All romances in the story were so I couldn’t connect with anything they did, and romance was a huge part of the story so it lowered my rating.

Laia and Elias:

“Many of the young men around me sneak glances at her. She doesn’t seem to notice wich, of course, makes her all the more intriguing.”


I have no idea of why this relationship is relevant either, but it might make more sense than her and Kennet? I mean, Laia’s family was destroyed by masks and Elias is one so it would be a nice contrast if she found herself having feelings for Elias.
The thing is, it’s another kind of insta love. Elias sees her and this is how he reacts:

“I’ve never seen her before, because if I had, I’d remember. Despite the heavy silver cuffs and high, painfullooking bun that mark all of Blackcliff’s drudges, nothing about her says slave. Her black dress fits her like a glove, sliding over every curve in a way that makes more than one head turn. Her full lips and fine, straight nose would be the envy of most girls, Scholar or not.”

                             shocked wow hugh jackman amazed awe

It’s too much, and too ridiculous. They may see each other five times, and of those times spoke only three, yet they are half-way in love already.

Helene and Elias:

Talk about ove stories that came out of nowhere. One minute Elias is swearing he has never thought of her as anything but a friend, the second he’s lusting all over her.

I felt bad for Helene, because during the most part her only role was that of being Elias’s friend/love interest. She’s the only chosen woman in Blackcliff for quite sometime, and is one of the best of her class. However, all her prowess and intelligence is hardly ever shown because she’s seen through Elias’ eyes, and even when they are about to die all he can think about is how close their bodies are or how beautiful she’s when she’s mad.

But then, she did something very shitty, and she kinds of kept doing things that I didn’t like... and I lost all love for her.

Rape as a plot device:

Before I started this book I’d heard a few complaints on the way rape was used in this book. Some said it was insensitive, others that it annoyed them and didn’t help with the plot, others that it fit the narrative because it was ancient-rome.
I found it unnecessary and a cheap way to show the cruelty of the world. You see, men in the book get beaten and cut, women get beaten, cut and raped.
I thought "ok this is kind of ancient Rome, so we'll get to see a lot of depravity and stuff, specially at Blackcliff." but it was all against women.

Maggie Stiefvater says it perfectly in her Post about literary rape how sexual violence is used against women to show something gritty, but not on men.

"I’m talking about novels where the rape scene could just as easily be any other sort of violent scene and it only becomes about sex because there’s a woman involved. If the genders were swapped, a rape scene wouldn’t have happened. "

Blackcliff was a place of violence and domination, I thought the author would show this too (if she had to) by mentioning how the students there were also raped. It's horrible, I know, but in a place like that it would have happened.
But the thing is, all students there were boys, so the risk of rape didn't exist (because apparently boys are not raped? smth). But when it comes to Helene, the ONLY girl student, she's the one who is at risk of being raped.

"Need to establish some stakes? Grab a secondary character and rape her. Possibly with a god or a mythological object if you have one handy. 
And that starts to feel a lot less like realism and more like a malingering culture of women as victims. "

Whenever there's a woman around, there's always the rape threat hanging closely. It's insensitive and unnecesary.

Overall, An Ember In The Ashes was an ok read, but nothing original or groundbreaking. I'm still curious enough to read the next book.

No comments:

Post a Comment