An Ember in the Ashes (AEITA #1) by Sabaa Tahir
Published by Penguin Teen
Young Adult, Fantasy, Romance
Release Date : April 25th 2015
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.
“Life is made of so many moments that mean nothing. Then one day, a single moment comes along to define every second that comes after. Such moments are tests of courage, of strength.”
TW : sexual assault, rape, torture, violence
Before I start my review I would like to talk about my current bookshelf. It has come to my attention (since I joined booktwitter) that I don’t read that diversely. During the start of my reading journey, March 2020, I did it for entertainment because of the lockdown. I only picked books based of my current mood and interest. In the current situation of the world, I’ve realized I need to read more diversely to support authors of color. I’m very proud of myself that this book is the second book I picked up by an author of color this month. Yes, it is a widely known series and is not exactly underrated but I take this step as a start. I will try to read books by more authors to paint color to my white bookshelf.
An Ember in the Ashes is the debut novel and the first of a series of a YA fantasy romance following two perspectives, Elias and Laia, by Sabaa Tahir. I recently picked this book up because it has long been on my shelf and I was in the mood for some romance. This series is a widely known among YA fantasy enthusiasts and is highly praised for its dual character perspectives. I went into this book not knowing anything besides the dual perspective that the book has. We follow two main characters from each of their perspectives, showing how they navigate through the plot, eventually intertwining their fates together.
The story is set in a land called Serra formerly ruled by the Scholars, an educated nation home to the finest universities and libraries, now conquered by the Martial Empire. The Martials have long since established their power in Serra. During the Martial’s conquest, no army of any kingdom or tribe could’ve defeated their armies. Their weapons break as they cross blades with any Martial soldier that holds a blade made of Serric steel. A steel so strong that could shatter anything weapon lesser to it. Securing absolute victory for the Martials over the Scholars, cementing their power over Serra. Since then, the Martial Empire has kept the secret knowledge of the Serric steel from falling into the hands of their enemies, not just from the Scholars, but also from the Tribes and the Mariners. The Martials subjugated the Scholars as mere slaves in their society, unlike the Tribes and the Mariners who still hold status in the Empire because of their frequent relationship in trade. Sabaa Tahir takes inspiration from historical empires, the Martials being synonymous to the Ancient Rome of the Juleo-Claudion Era. The Blackcliff military school is inspired by Sparta and the brutal training regiments of a Mask are inspired by Spartan military culture. Ancient Spartan boys entered the agoge at the of age seven and they are bound to it until adulthood, just like Elias’ impending graduation from Blackcliff before being a full fledged Mask.
The supernatural creatures (djinns, ifrits, wraiths, etc), that both Laia and Elias encounters in the world, are taken from Islamic mythology. Sabaa Tahir created a society that has long since distanced themselves from believing in magic and the existence of such supernatural beings. They view things such as djinns, ghouls, ifrits, or wraiths as mere children stories or songs. Prior to being conquered by the Martials, the Scholars erased their own history of having destroyed a kingdom of djinn in order to build their own society where logic and science trumps the supernatural. This is a good look into human development in the world and how technology and science has advanced with time. Sabaa Tahir did not hold back in showing the brutality that is slavery and the hardships that slave girls had to endure in the story. Any mistake that a slave makes is paid for in blood. Influences from history and mythology allows Sabaa Tahir to create the setting of Serra as an entertaining background for a fantastical story.
First, we follow Laia, a Scholar girl, living under the rule of the Martial Empire. These circumstances has made Laia and her family live a simple life and hoping to not provoke or catch the attention of a Martial soldier, especially a Mask. All until one night, Laia’s family home was raided by a Mask and his troops came to arrest her brother, Darin, who was discovered to be learning the secrets on how to make the Martial’s weapons. Darin is captured and both their grandparents killed in cold blood by a Mask. Dead set on saving her brother Laia goes to the tunnels hoping to encounter the Scholar Resistance group and then asking them for help. She ends up striking a deal with the Resistance leader to spy on the Commandant from within the Blackcliff stronghold, where the Empire trains their elite soldiers called the Mask, in exchange to help breakout Darin from prison. Convincing the Resistance leader to agree to help Laia free her brother is difficult, Laia revealed her true identity and told them of her family’s previous connection to the Resistance. Laia infiltrated Blackcliff in the guise of being sold as a personal slave for the Commandant, Keris Veturius, a ruthless woman that holds power over Blackcliff.
Laia is a character that is similar to other heroines in books that I’ve read. She has gone through a lot of things in the first few chapters and she is on a mission to save her only family. Her character at the start is weak as she has always been a sheltered child living in hiding, admiring her brother for his strength and bravery. She also aspires to be more like him and sees him as an inspirational figure. Her development throughout the story is a slow ascent. At first she takes her steps more carefully from the fear of being abused by her superior, but she starts to gain confidence and begins taking riskier chances. She is smart, resourceful, and willing to do anything to save her brother. Willing enough to be whipped by the Commandant and nearly raped by Markus Farrar, a Mask soldier with a brutal taste for torture and violence.
Laia’s development as a whole did not hit the mark for me. Every difficult situation she is faced with seems to be conveniently resolved making it hard for me to believe her development. Laia’s back story holds a lot of potential for growth in this first book, she experienced trauma and had endured so much loss in her family, but the build up from such good foundation that led to her eventual climax didn’t seem believable enough. Her romance with Keenan, one of the members of the Resistance, was a case of insta love. The trope can easily be a turn off for some readers if not done well and in this case it’s that.
“You are full, Laia. Full of life and dark and strength and spirit. You are in our dreams. You will burn, for you are an ember in the ashes.“
Secondly, we follow Elias, a Martial boy, currently in his last days of training as a Mask. The days are numbered until he graduates and becomes a full fledged Mask. The Masks are an elite force of soldiers in the Martial Empire trained to be killing machines that will abide to the empires bidding. Elias is different from the other Martials, as he grew up with the Tribes. He questions the Empires practices of violence and oppression towards the Scholars. While most of his peers are ruthless and brainwashed to show no mercy towards the Scholars, Elias is very reluctant and shows mercy. He is disgusted by violence, blood, and death. He is ready to leave it all behind until one of the Augurs confronts him.
“You are an ember in the ashes, Elias Veturius. You will spark and burn, ravage and destroy. You cannot change it. You cannot stop it.”
I value a hero that is reluctant in doing what’s right but still does it anyway. For Elias, he is reluctant because he knows if he doesn’t become a ruthless Mask that despises the Scholars he will get killed, tortured or both. Elias is visibly torn about his life, wanting to be unshackled from a life of bloodshed and servitude. He is pressured by the people around him to be an abiding Mask soldier high in the ranks. This is what I adore and dislike about Elias. I adore that he stood up for Laia and saved her multiple times while also being enthralled by Laia’s beauty but I dislike his reasons of being righteous for the sake of being righteous. There are no layers to his reasons defying the Empire. He is taken from his foster family and thrown into Blackcliff from a young age to endure its brutal training until he is an adult and the only reason he hates being a Mask is because he can’t stand the unreasonable violence. His character could be more complex than it is in this book and had so much potential for a greater development. The inner peace he eventually comes to terms with seemed to forced and wasn’t explored deep enough for me to believe his development.
“Laia and Helene: They’re so different. I like that Laia says things I don’t expect, that she speaks almost formally, as if she’s telling a story. I like that she defied my mother to go to the Moon Festival, whereas Helene always obeys the Commandant. Laia is the wild dance of a Tribal campfire, while Helene is the cold blue of an alchemist’s flame.
But why am I even comparing them? I’ve know Laia a few days and Helene all my life. Helene’s no passing attraction. She’s family. More than that. She’s part of me.”
While I had a hard time with Elias’ character development, I would like to give spotlight on Sabaa Tahir’s ability to develop Elias’ relationship with Helene Aquilla, Elias’ best friend and trusted comrade in Blackcliff. Their relationship took a turn as Helene develops feelings for Elias leading to many awkward moments between the two. The raw emotion of falling in love with your best friend is commonly experienced by anyone and it is a hard thing to navigate through. Throw in trials to become Emperor into dynamic also adds to the complexity of the relationship. The misunderstandings, confusion, raging hormones, and tension is relishing to see unfold. Unlike the moments Elias shares with Laia that is like fire beginning to spark, the relationship between him and Helene is already a well lit furnace. Sabaa Tahir adds a much more fresh dynamic into the story by adding a friendship between a male protagonist and a female character that didn’t end up being a romance. There is a potential development in the relationship between Elias and Helene as it will gain more depth in how it will grow, now that the dynamic is more complicated by the end of the story, I expect to see more interactions between the two in future books.
The antagonist in this book, Keris Veturius, the Commandant is cruel by nature. She loves torture and relishes in inflicting pain on others. Keris as an antagonist didn’t add anything new to the villain trope, she is one dimensional as a character being only dead set on killing her son, Elias Veturius. Keris’ purpose and motivation throughout the story is still shrouded as this is the first book of a four book series. I hope it will be uncovered in the sequels.
An Ember in The Ashes is a well written, fast paced, and a good starter to a series. I liked the unique setting of Serra, politically and as a world in general. This book’s sequel will likely expand the setting beyond Serra as during the ending our protagonist will be on the run. Compared to other fantasy books, the world building is set as a background for the story and plot. It is simple and not hard to follow. The magic system is a bit confusing but very subtle, I hope that it will be explored further in the sequel. An Ember in The Ashes is darker than most YA fantasy I’ve read and Sabaa Tahir doesn’t shy away from the depicting dark issues.
Personally my verdict for this book is 3.5 stars but I would like to rate the quality of the story and characters with 4 stars. Some moments and characters didn’t connect with me as a reader. There are factors that plays a huge part in me not engaging more into the story as a whole and forming a connection to both main characters. These factors are: the weak character development in Laia, the values that Elias holds as a character defying the Empire that wasn’t explored deep enough, and the lack of connection I have with either Laia or Elias. Since this is the first book to a series the character development is not prominent yet, I am looking forward to see how Sabaa Tahir will continue on with the story. I highly recommend this book for new readers that wants to get into fantasy or if you just want to find a good fantasy romance to read. I do want to remind you all that there are a few moments that might be triggering to some people. This book is a fun adventure and I will surely continue with the series.