I received this book free from First to Read Program in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
Series: An Ember in the Ashes #1
Published by Razorbill on April 28th 2015
Source: First to Read Program
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In the Martial Empire, is it the soldier or the slave who’s truly free?
Laia is a Scholar living under the brutal rule of the Martial Empire. When her brother is arrested for treason, Laia goes undercover as a slave at the empire’s greatest military academy in exchange for assistance from other Scholars who claim that they will help to save her brother from execution. At the academy, Laia meets Elias, the academy’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias is considering deserting the military, but before he can, he’s ordered to participate in the Trials, a ruthless contest to choose the next Martial emperor. It is not long before the far-reaching arm of Trials snatches not just Elias but Laia as well; and soon the two will find that their destinies are more intertwined than either could have imagined and that their choices will change the future of the empire itself.
Baaaaa. Baaaaa. Look at me. Aren’t I cute?
An Ember in the Ashes was one of my most anticipated of the year. I knew very little about it going in, only that it’s a fantasy inspired by ancient Rome (Gladiator, anyone?) and there was already extensive praise from many bloggers. I’m sad to say that I not only found this extremely tedious but shockingly uninteresting based on the seemingly exciting subject matter.
‘You will burn, for you are an ember in the ashes. That is your destiny.’
In this world, the Martials rule the Empire and have done so for the last 500 years since they defeated the Scholars. Laia and her brother live with their grandparents after both their mother and father were killed for being a part of the Scholar Resistance. When her brother becomes privy to secrets the Martials would prefer to keep safe, they send Masks, elite soldiers, to capture him. Laia manages to escape but the guilt she bears for running instead of trying to save her brother eats her alive. When she seeks out the Resistance in order to ask for their help in saving her brother, she finds herself agreeing to become a slave, in exchange for their help, and signed up for a job that no one has survived: spying on the terrifying Commandant of Blackcliff Military Academy.
Elias is a soldier in training at Blackcliff Military Academy but has dreams of one day escaping from the vows he made and from his mother, the Commandant. Just when he thinks his plans are secure and he’ll be able to consider himself free, he is named an Aspirant, a candidate for the throne if he can beat out the three other competitors in the Trials. He has no desire to rule, however, refusing to compete is a death sentence. When Elias and Laia meet, even though they should be enemies, they both recognize that they share a common goal to one day become truly free.
I had to line it all out again because even just that snippet has me dumbfounded that it managed to be so dull. First and foremost in a fantasy world for me is the focus on world-building. The previously mentioned Roman inspiration is apparent and fairly detailed, but while this is also meant to be a fantasy that’s where the world-building got real choppy. There were fantasy creatures that we’re told were beings in stories the characters learned when they were children and they basically came out of nowhere with no explanation. Some fed off Laia’s sadness but the fact that she was able to see them was apparently rare but it was never mentioned again. It just wasn’t logical to me.
Next up in my list of letdowns, the characters. The chapters alternate between Elias and Laia’s points of view and these are the most inexplicably dull characters, ever. Absolutely nothing they did was ever any interest to me. The fact that Laia was constantly being abused throughout the entirety of the book should have at least drawn a modicum of sympathy from me but for some reason there was none. Their obligatory romance also completely lacked any sort of passion which made me care even less for the duo if that was even possible. There is also somewhat of a love triangle (with a dude with red hair and freckles — in Rome? Yeah, think on that one for a sec.) and I didn’t like him any better. There was literally nothing I enjoyed about this one, honestly. The only reason it’s not getting one star is because it wasn’t horrible it just wasn’t compelling at all. I found myself reading the last 7% of the story, one of the main characters is facing certain death (although let’s face it, something miraculous always happens to save the day so I wasn’t too concerned), bombs are going off, the crowd is in chaos… *yawn* Hey, I need to organize my filing cabinet. No exaggeration. It took me a full two days to finish the last 10%. I really should have just quit but there’s always that inkling of hope where you think something amazing is going to happen at the end to turn it all around. View Spoiler »It doesn’t. « Hide Spoiler
No, what we do get for the majority of this unreasonably long book is a lot of violence and bloodshed, primarily towards the female slave who is always either cowering in fear from threats, being whipped, fighting off rape, etc. I understand that this is all possibly meant to show how a slave lived in ancient times but there’s violence and then there’s gratuitous. I felt that line was crossed often. There were few redeemable females in the whole of this book. The Commander was sadistic and whipped her slaves for being a few minutes late with tea and even had another of her slave’s EYEBALL ripped out when they were only five years old. She’s a real peach. I loved the concept of Helene, the sole female Mask in her class, but instead of remaining that badass, empowered female she morphed overnight into this simpering fool when she falls for Elias. The jealous aspect was something I really could have done without. I did enjoy the scenes with Cook in it (another slave) and Izzi was tenacious despite the threat of violence as well so there’s that at least.
The plot moved at a snail’s pace. Much of the story is spent with Elias undergoing the trials and Laia trying to survive while still attempting to figure out how to save her brother. The ending is one I pretty much saw coming but still managed to feel so very staged and engineered and just blah. Nothing was really resolved despite my understanding that this was meant to be a standalone. I’ve heard differing opinions on this though. Apparently, it could be a series if the publisher opts to pick up other installments? But based on that ending it wasn’t close to being resolved. I can’t say I’m interested enough in picking up any future installments even if they do happen.