I have read many amazing YA fantasy books, but it’s not often that I read a YA fantasy that leaves me breathless with excitement and anticipation with every page, and keeps me up all night even when I have a midterm early morning the next day.
With a simple, yet captivating narration style, immensely likable protagonists, well-developed characters, and a uniquely diverse plot that explores Islamic/Pakistani cultures and myths, An Ember In The Ashes by Sabaa Tahir is a book that I recommend to everyone to read, especially to those who are looking for a bit of diversity in their reading.
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, it’s 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.
Ratings: 5 Out Of 5
Trigger Warnings: genocide, threat of rape, physical violence, attempted rape, graphic violence and gore, graphic death
The story begins with action, which was one of the things that made it hard for me to put down this book, and we immediately see our protagonists faced with two completely difficult and painful situations: on one hand, we see Laia lose everything she ever had in the space of one night, but instead of pausing to grieve she immediately sets on a mission to save her brother.
On the other hand, there is Elias, the best student of Blackcliffe, the son of a ruthless, heartless woman, planning to betray everything he was taught to fight for since he was a child.
Through both of these characters, we see two distinct stories–the story of a damsel-in-distress learning to slay her own demons (literally and metaphorically), and the story of a soldier realizing that some things are worth dying for, even if doing so means betraying his own people.
Of these two, Elias was probably my favorite perspective, perhaps because he is much more mature and has more humor than Laia, even though I do still love her as a protagonist. And the relationship between them was something that made my heart flutter, not just because they had electrifying chemistry, but because of how they slowly came to respect and trust each other.
The other characters in this book were equally well crafted. We have Helene, unwaveringly loyal to the Empire, to the point where you cannot help but hate her for her careless attitude towards how her people mistreat the Scholars, but at the same time you cannot help but admire how strong, and brave she is. Then there are the antagonists of course–Marcus, the Commandant, and the Nightbringer–who are by far the evilest, and villainous characters I have read in a book and will no doubt make you love to hate them.
As for the plot, well since this is only the first book, for now all we see is the conflict between the Martials who have a history of causing bloodshed and oppressing others for centuries and the Scholars who were once were very powerful through knowledge until the Martials conquered them and turned them into slaves.
But it is clear that there is more to the plot than just your typical story of a rebellion by the oppressed–there is magic, there is the story of jinns and efrits, things we will probably explore more in the later books–and I’ll admit, I enjoyed Tahir’s take of Islamic myths even more because they were stories that I grew up listening to, and hence I was more than thrilled to see a bit of my culture portrayed here. The romance was very subtle yet cleverly woven into the plot to get you excited over even the smallest scenes between the characters, which is exactly how I like my YA novels; I always find it ridiculous when writers focus too much on the character’s love life while the world around them is falling apart.
The only thing lacking in this novel is the world-building. Although it is easy to understand that the story is set in a place that is somewhat a mix of Ancient Rome and the Middle East, the lack of world-building made it difficult to truly appreciate the culture and the society the story takes place.
Despite this flaw, I still immensely enjoyed reading An Ember In The Ashes, and I highly recommend this to anyone who is a fan of Young Adult and Fantasy.
~ More From Sabaa Tahir ~
If you’ve read this book, share your thoughts in the comments below!