You know that moment when you realize you just read something brilliant. That a book hangover is inevitable and the wounds inflicted are going to take longer than average to heal? That a few days “reading rest” will be required before moving on to a new book? That is exactly how I felt after reading Sabaa Tahir’s “An Ember In The Ashes.”
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.
Here’s the thing. I’ve seen this book on numerous 2015 DNF lists (which made me a little nervous) and while (to an extent) I can understand why (maybe it’s not a genre you enjoy, the world building was just too much for you, you aggressively disliked certain characters) I stand by my original statement.
This book was a brilliant portrayal of human spirit.
Whether through the eyes of Laia, who battled as much with her own self confidence as she did her slaver. Helene, who was torn between her heart and her head, or Elias, who wanted nothing more than to be free of the monster he was convinced he was becoming. “An Ember in the Ashes” demanded soul accountability from its characters…even the most heinous one. (Who, for the record tried to kill her own child.)
But the best characters in the world won’t matter if the plot is stale. And this is where things get complicated (and most likely where Tahir lost some of her readers.) There is A LOT going on inside of this book. It’s A LOT to keep up with. (For transparency sake, I LOVE complex fantasy novels, so to me…it was awesome.)
I found my self in an odd position though; completely aware of what was about to happen, yet totally astonished by the manner in which the crux was accomplished. My ability to foretell plot points didn’t leave me frustrated (as it usually does) instead…it left me intrigued.
How would Tahir manage to eliminate certain characters without alienating her audience? How would she flip and spin their fates into something I’d want to continue to read in additional books?
The only answer I could come up with…she couldn’t. (Well, at least in regards to the first question that is.)
And good for her. As an author her job is not to placate me, pacify me, tie everything up with pretty bows and end on a high note. Her job is to entertain me. Challenge me. Make me despise some characters while I cry for others. Her job is to draw me into HER vision, not the other way around. Make me long to be a part of something outside of myself, and that ladies and gents, she accomplished ten fold. I wanted to wipe the sweat from Laia’s face. Remove Elias’s mask and show the world who he really is. I wanted to buy Helene a pint of ice cream and assure her everything would be ok. I wanted to be the hand that choked the life out of Marcus. Which I’m fully aware makes me sound insane, but it also means I connected to the story, the characters, the harsh reality that was Blackcliff.
In short, I was glad that I followed my gut instinct and read this book. If I hadn’t, I would have deprived myself of something truly beautiful.
So here is my advice…if you enjoy fantasy, read this book. If you enjoy complex stories with complex characters… read this book. BUT if you are a reader who tends to give up on a book when the characters don’t respond the way you want, or the plot takes a turn you don’t approve of…don’t bother. You won’t enjoy it. “An Ember in the Ashes” does not walk the road well traveled, it paves it’s own.
Add it to your Goodreads shelf / Amazon wishlist