by Sabaa Tahir
Series: An Ember in the Ashes #1
Published on April 28, 2015 by Razorbill
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
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.
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The Empire is not to be toyed with in this epic fantasy of soldiering Masks, prophecies, and creatures from legends. An Ember in the Ashes tells the alternating stories of Laia, a young Scholar woman seeking a way to save her brother, and Elias, a soon-to-be Mask with a destiny far beyond his imagining. As time goes on, their lives become impossibly twined until the fate of one may determine that of the other.
I devoured this book. Back and forth, I flipped between the minds of Laia and Elias as a 500-year-old prophecy unfolds with a much deadlier force than either expected. Tahir spun a world of order, rebellion, and magic long suppressed. While much of this book exists in Blackcliff Academy where Elias trains (and parts of the surrounding city) I’m excited to see outside the academy and what the rest of the world is like. You learn a lot despite the limited location but the Empire definitely has more secrets to be told.
Written in first person, it’s hard to ignore the characters and I definitely had my favorites. To be honest, I really wasn’t a fan of Laia until near the end. She spends the majority of the book lamenting her brother’s fate and falling into the rebellion web. It defined her character completely but also became a tad monotonous. I preferred Elias who had a lot going on in his head but a healthy skepticism (perhaps more relatable for me). His destiny is so large and there were too many secrets left uncovered. I need to know what happens to Elias.
And of course there’s a romance of sorts. I expected it from the start upon reading the first two chapters simply because of who the characters were. Perhaps that’s a bit of conditioning from the young adult genre coming into play but I wasn’t wrong. What I didn’t expect was Helene. And by that I mean I ship Elias and Helene hardcore. I have a feeling I’ll be disappointed for my OTP but I stand by it. Laia can have her red-headed rebel but I think Helene needs a novella or something. I didn’t always agree with her actions but she quickly became my favorite female character. Keris, the Commandant, also made the list (yes, I like my antagonists, thank you very much).
There are so many supporting characters from each of the Scholar and Martial worlds that I’m surprised this is only one of 2 books (fingers crossed for spin-offs!). But I do hope to see Tahir explore the supernatural side of the world more. For the last third or so of Ember there are several creatures mentioned, and one in particular who is going to play a bigger role in book 2 I’m sure. And with Helene’s secret thrown in the mix, just give me ALL the magic.
I adored this book and definitely need the sequel now. There is so much left unsaid, so many uncertainties. I need to know what happened to Elias (and Laia, I suppose), and Helene! She’s such a kickass character, she needs a happy ending. An absolute must-read for YA fantasy lovers.