For years Laia has lived in fear. Fear of the Empire, fear of the Martials, fear of truly living at all. Born as a Scholar, she’s never had much of a choice.
For Elias it’s the opposite. He has seen too much on his path to becoming a Mask, one of the Empire’s elite soldiers. With the Masks’ help the Empire has conquered a continent and enslaved thousands, all in the name of power.
When Laia’s brother is taken she must force herself to help the Resistance, the only people who have a chance of saving him. She must spy on the Commandant, ruthless overseer of Blackcliff Academy. Blackcliff is the training ground for Masks and the very place that Elias is planning to escape. If he succeeds, he will be named deserter. If found, the punishment will be death.
But once Laia and Elias meet, they will find that their destinies are intertwined and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.
In the ashes of a broken world one person can make a difference. One voice in the dark can be heard. The price of freedom is always high and this time that price might demand everything, even life itself.
Sabaa Tahir’s debut An Ember in the Ashes was one of the books that really caught my eye when I first saw it announced last year. Its Imperial Rome-inspired, militaristic secondary world setting sounded intriguing and let’s be honest, who doesn’t like a nice ‘revolution against the despots’-narrative? So I was really stoked to receive an ARC for the book, especially as it was also a very pretty book as well. And yes, that is exactly as shallow as it sounds. And while I truly enjoyed An Ember in the Ashes and I definitely want to know what happens in the next book, I also had some big problems with the narrative.
To start with what I found problematic – and I’m going to include a warning here that there will be discussion of rape, so you might want to skip the next paragraph if this could upset you – I was really bothered by the way Martial women were portrayed and how the Martials treated their female enemies. The Martial society is by its very nature a violent one and it is unsurprising that coercion and physical violence are the order of the day. In context I can certainly deal with that. But what really bothered me was the way that whenever they wanted to threaten a woman, be it a slave, a Scholar, or a fellow Martial, if they were female, the threat would be rape or sexual assault. If someone had to be painted as a real bad guy, he’d commit casual sexual violence against the nearest woman and Tahir only emphasises the point by mentioning several times that our hero Elias has never and would never do anything like this. It felt like an easy and lazy way to create a good and evil binary and after the third time it happened it just became tiresome.
The other thing that bothered me was the fact that the Masks, the elite group of Martial warriors Elias is training to be a part of, have institutionalised the Excepto Girl. They literally only allow one female student into the Blackcliff training academy per generation. And of course, they are exceptional; the one in the previous generation is the current Commandant of Blackcliff, while Helena, of the current generation, is one of the top students in her class. The other female Martials the reader encounters are either matrons or husband-hunting young adults, none of them seem to have any other roles in life. There is no other character like Hel, other than the Commandant, and we can only hope the Hel won’t be emulating her example.
Hel is also a pretty huge contrast to Laia, the female protagonist of An Ember in the Ashes. Laia isn’t exceptional. She doesn’t seem to have any exceptional talents nor is she a kickass warrior. She isn’t even exceptionally brave by nature. What she is, is loyal – to her family, to her brother, and to Serra – and it is this loyalty that drives her to be braver than she ever imagined. If Hel is an Excepto Girl, then Laia is an UN-Excepto Girl. And it makes her all the more interesting too. I loved Laia’s grit and perseverance. She doesn’t let anything or anyone dissuade her from trying to save her brother. Not even discovering that her beloved parents weren’t who she thought they were. Her budding romance with freedom fighter Keenan was sweet and I enjoyed the fact that she took charge at some points.
While I really liked Laia, I found Elias’ character arc more interesting, because his choices are far less clear-cut. Where Laia’s motivations are extrinsic, i.e. she wants to save her brother, Elias’ drives are far more internally driven. He genuinely believes that the Empire’s militaristic society is wrong and that the way the Martials treat those under their control is inhuman. This pits him against everything and everyone around him, even those he loves best, such as Hel and his other squad mates. And despite this internal conflict, it never turns into angst, yes, there is desperation, anger, frustration and confusion, but not the angst you might expect. When he is given the chance to choose his future by the Augur Cain, it comes in the form of a riddle Elias must solve and the answer was unexpected.
The element of the book that perhaps worked best for me was the world-building. Tahir created an interesting class-based society in which the classes are divided by heritage, on the one hand the dominant Martials and on the other the Scholars. There is a third class, the slaves, but their ability to decide their own actions is severely limited, though not completely as shown through Cook’s actions. The militaristic nature of Martial society is brutal and yet I found myself warming to the camaraderie between Elias, Helena, and their fellow students. There is something about the training school thing that just gets me every time. On the other side of the equation, I really liked the way that many Scholars rebel in small ways, for example by teaching their children to read, even if they are not allowed to. And Laia’s alliance and history with the Resistance made for some very compelling scenes.
The decidedly Roman-with-a-twist vibe of the world of An Ember in the Ashes really worked for me and I found both Laia’s and Elias’ respective story arcs quite interesting. Even if I had some major problems with some of the character-building in the book, An Ember in the Ashes was an entertaining read. We leave Blackcliff and Serra on somewhat of a cliffhanger, though it is a natural break in the narrative and I can’t wait to find out what happens next. It’ll be interesting to see where Tahir takes her protagonists from where we left them and to see whether they can really affect change in the Empire.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.