An Ember in the Ashes
by Sabaa Tahir
★★★★★ (5 out of 5 stars)
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.
This book hovered at 4/4.5 stars and finished at 5 stars. The chapters here are split between two different characters’ points of view, Laia and Elias. Laia is a Scholar, the people whom the Empire have conquered and have brutally oppressed. Elias is a Mask, the most elite trained warriors for the Empire.
I didn’t care for Laia’s chapters for maybe the first third of this book, but she grew on me. In truth she grew in the book. She was an almost unrecognizably different person by the end of the story. It’s rare to see an author allow a main protagonist to be so weak, whiny, and cowardly that it’s actually hard to even continue reading their perspective, to the point where where you are just screaming in you head, “UGH!”, and then to allow their development to come slowly, organically over the course of the story. No sudden big show of how much she’s suddenly a badass. Nope. Just the slow journey of Laia learning to have faith in herself.
In contrast to Laia, I LOVED Elias from the start. I enjoyed his character and discovering this world through his eyes. Everything about him, his backstory, his desire to always do what’s right, his strength (both physical and mental), and his desperate, heart wrenching desire for a life free from the Empire is hauntingly evocative. He is a great example of how a character can be in a horrible situation and forced to make terrible decisions, yet still strive to inflict the least amount of damage as possible.
Helene was interesting. She often made choices that made me want to yell at her, but I always felt like I understood why she made those decisions. For being a supporting character I think Tahir did a remarkable job at developing her and showing us who this character was.
The rest of the characters, Keenan, the resistance, the masks, Izzi, and Cook, were engaging and I would like to learn more about them in future books.
I think the best part of this book was reading the two different points of view. Usually I don’t enjoy books that switch off from one person to another, BUT it was beautifully rendered here to full effect. It allows for such a comprehensive picture of this world that she has created. You are continually shown the humanity on both sides, not just from the perspective of the oppressed, which is typical, but also the oppressor. You really feel you understand this world because of it.