Review: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

20560137An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
Published: April 28th 2015 by Razorbill
Pages: 453

An Ember in the Ashes is a thought-provoking, heart-wrenching and pulse-pounding read. Set in a rich, high-fantasy world with echoes of ancient Rome, it tells the story of a slave fighting for her family and a young soldier fighting for his freedom.

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.
“You are an ember in the ashes, Elias Veturius. You will spark and burn, ravage and destroy. You cannot change it. You cannot stop it.”
― Sabaa Tahir, An Ember in the Ashes
Actual rating: 2.5 stars

An Ember in the Ashes is most likely one of those books I don't even know if I liked them or not. The sneak-peak has a lot to do with how I first imagined the book, namely Legend meets The Winner's Curse. Despite my wild enthusiasm, the full-length novel turned into my biggest disappointment of the year so far. Oh, how deceiving sneak-peaks can be. I am not lying when I say I was blown away by the little amount of pages, but I wish I would have stayed with the sneak-peak itself. This is not the action-packed novel I so desperately wanted it to be.

The book opened on a compelling scene and an even more interesting story-line. It quickly left me craving for more and the need to devour the everything at once. Overall, a book I really could finish in one sitting. Turns out, I was so wrong. No matter what the synopsis promises, I did not think it was that thrilling, even less action-packed. What could you expect from a book, set in a fantasy/dystopian world, complete with influences from the Roman and the Spartan empire? Action.I needed it to be fast-paced in order to finish it in one sitting and be out of breath just by amazing it was. Again, I don't think I will ever have the words to express how disappointed I am.

Quickly after the amazing first chapter, the plot took a surprising turn I wasn't really rooting for. Even more surprising was that it kept going down that road all the way through, resulting in constant frustrations. Furthermore, there wasn't really anything special about it and I encountered lots of recycled material from other hyped-up young-adult series. The story was also very predictable from beginning to end. There was a little exception at the end, but even that didn't felt like a real twist to me anymore. The lack of action remained my biggest struggle throughout my reading experience. It seemed like a lot of the total action calibre was already shown in the first chapter, which led to a very little amount in the rest of the book. Honestly, it was so boring. Even the scenes that were supposed to contain action, did not at all feel like it. In my opinion, there was an overuse of thoughts and feelings because I just couldn't find the thrill to keep reading. It wasn't until the very end I grew interested again in what was happening.

Skimming or even DNF'ing then seemed like a very good idea, but for some reason I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Action and thrill aren't the only aspects that make a novel good. Unfortunately for me, that is where my struggles come in and also the reason as to why I find it so difficult to write about this book. There were so many, other thing which were just amazing and outstanding. None of them seemed dominant enough to make me forget about the rest, but if they were one thing, they were good.

A little bit of research about this book has led me to one fact I applaud the author for: it took her six years to write this thing, partly because of the world-building. It was clear for me from the very start how well-developed the world truly was and how much research there was put into it. I absolutely loved the input of Arabian folklore because it blended in so well with the Greek/Roman culture. Especially the Spartan influences came across to me, and how. This world was so violent, and I feel kind of bad for declaring how much I adored that. Never had I read a book where the battle between two nations and the immense discrimination felt so real. I also might have read books about slaves before, but also none of those really capture the pain of living a life like one. An Ember in the Ashes seriously succeeded in doing so. Even when I wasn't comfortable with some things happening, I don't think anyone could have done it better than Tahir.

During my long reading sessions, I got to encounter a bunch of characters along the way. Some were still as amazing as when they first appeared, like Elias and Helene. Despite both of them sharing an identical and cruel education at Blackcliff academy, they both turned into completely different people. One who will always be loyal to the Empire, and one who isn't very likely to. I found it to be so interesting to have their voices in this story. It feels like even the bad guys get to tell their story, not just the good girl, Laia. She went through some excellent character development and I did like her presence every now and then, but that's where my love for her ends. Being the same age as I am and considering her dark past, I can't believe how naive she was. Throughout the story she constantly made the most stupid decisions a girl can make, without even thinking of consequences. A reckless character can be fun, but not in this case. I even found several side characters to be more fascinating than her.

Having written most of my feelings regarding An Ember in the Ashes down, there is still one bad part left: the romance. As if I didn't have a dislike for love triangles already, the author introduced the love square: a complicated and tangled web of emotions, (forced) romance, hints of insta-love and the friend-zone. It simply filled me with frustration. Before even starting the book, you get a hint of who the two love birds of the book might be. Turns out, both of them already have a "lover" of their own before their first meeting. A smart choice? I don't think so, because now it feels like the author couldn't make up her mind about the romance and expected her readers to go with it. Even though I was quite irritated by this kind of romance, the ending brought along a sense of satisfaction and relief I cannot be thankful enough for.

In the end, I still can't make up my mind about An Ember in the Ashes. There were several bad parts with some good things inbetween. There was a boring and predictable plot, good characters and an amazing world. What I do know for sure, is that it's my disappointment of the year so far.

Aurélie Cremers is an eighteen-year-old living in Belgium. As an active member on Goodreads, Edelweiss and Amazon, she's always spreading her reviews to express her opinion and influences her followers to read the books she fairly enjoyed. When she's not writing, you can find her at her local bookstore or in a classroom. With her blog, "Exploring Pages", Aurélie hopes to gain a larger public in the near future and to continue that what she'll always love doing: writing.

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