An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir has an interesting cast of characters, setting, and plot. It has all the makings of a fantastic, unforgettable book.
However it very disappointingly falls flat. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed it. But the world building, or lack thereof, really let it down.
An Ember in the Ashes follows two characters, the first is Laia, 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 rebel Scholars who vow to save her brother from execution. The second is 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 a ruthless contest to choose the next Martial emperor.
Laia and Elias were both very complex and flawed characters, and they each had a distinct voice. Although I found Laia somewhat irritating, I liked her growth throughout the novel as she found courage within herself. Her brother Darin, who pretty much fuels her courage, I did have a problem with. I felt both him and Laia's relationship with him weren't developed well enough for me to really connect with Laia at all.
Elias I enjoyed a lot more, all his motivations and relationships were well developed and built up, and I could actually understand him. I especially enjoyed his relationship with his mother, a mystery that slowly unravelled.
I wasn't really into the plot until the last hundred or so pages when it really picked up and everything was crazy. I loved the way Laia's and Elias' stories intertwined, and ultimately reached the same place. The plot moved very fast and had some nice twists, but ultimately it just couldn't make up for the lack of world building.
This fantasy world was supposedly inspired by Ancient Rome which I could almost see coming through, but there was just no atmosphere at all. The writing was fairly simple and was fast paced, but had some nice quoteable passages.
I look up at the stars hanging low in a sky that makes me think I’m seeing the infinite. But beneath their cold gaze, I feel small. All the beauty of the stars means nothing when life here on earth is so ugly.
Well that's great and all but I felt so lost being thrown into an intense plot, but having no idea what the setting was like. There is little to no description of the surroundings, and it leaves the story very bland.
Also WHAT ON EARTH are the "Masks" supposed to look like?! They're soldiers who have this mask stuck on their faces, but all I could see was a bunch of soldiers looking like the gas mask kid from Doctor who...and (while that is totally creepy) I'm pretty sure that is not what they are meant to be.
Overall, An Ember in the Ashes was enjoyable, but a huge let down. I would recommend it if you like YA fantasy such as the Grisha trilogy and Snow Like Ashes. If this book impacted me in any way, it was a reminder of how important world building is.