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An Ember in the Ashes | Thoughts

4 Stars.

"Life is made of so many moments that mean nothing. Then one day, a single moment comes along to define every second that comes after. The moment Darin called out - that was such a moment. It was a test of courage, of strength. And I failed it."

Emberlings. That's what we're called. Those of us avid followers of Sabaa Tahir and the world of An Ember in the Ashes. I'm proud to be one—I thoroughly enjoyed this book, both times I read it.

It's fast-paced, emotional, shocking, and well-written. The pages fly by, and both Laia and Elias are characters I hated to leave when the POV switched, but also couldn't wait to get back to. It's not without issues, as several fellow reviewers I respect have pointed out. I recognize their points, give a tip of the hat to each—*touché*—and all the while maintain the simple knowledge that for me, none of the issues mattered enough to knock it from my mind's pedestal.

A medley of Greek and Roman culture and Arabian myth, Ember strays from the typical one-dimensional setting. I'll admit, these are a little strange paired together, and the mystical elements are thrown in a bit haphazardly, but they are one of the reasons I enjoyed. Laia is a Scholar, a people who were devoted to knowledge before the Empire invaded and enslaved them. Daughter of the once-leaders of the Scholar's rebellion, Laia feels nothing like her warrior mother, timid and unwilling to go against the Empire. But when her brother, Darin, is taken by a Mask of the Empire one night, she goes to the heart of the rebellion to strike a deal and save him. What are Masks? Oh, just perfectly obedient warriors, whose silver masks meld to their flesh, marking them as weapons of the Empire.

The cost of his rescue is information, and she is sent as a spy into Blackcliff Academy, to serve as a slave in the commandant's household. Except she has a hard time behaving as a cowed slave should, having been born a free woman and thus far living a relatively unshackled life. Sure, she has witnessed the violence of the Empire, known several friends, neighbors, and even family who were brutally executed. But she is unaccustomed to the ways of Blackcliff, and she suffers for it.

Elias Veturius is a senior student at Blackcliff, best in his class, and oh yes, the commandant's son. He is respected and, once chosen to compete in the Trials to determine a new Emperor, the decided favorite to succeed. He is matched by the only female Mask currently at the academy, his best friend and utmost Empire loyalist, Helene. He carries a secret as deadly as Laia, in his own hatred for the Empire. But how can he explain that to those surrounding him, who would gladly die for the Empire? How is he to desert as he has planned for months?  When he meets Laia, he finds himself drawing nearer his breaking point with the oppression of the Empire on not just the Scholar slaves, but on its own people as well. Confused and only somewhat guided by the mystical words of the Augurs, Elias remains at Blackcliff to compete in the Trials, trusting that this is the path to his one true chance at freedom. The Augurs have their own plans, however, that put the characters against one another in unexpected ways and leave you just as confused as Elias as to what their motives could be.

The Augur's put me in mind of the ephors of Greece (remember those inbred mystics in the mountains of 300?). 


Tahir does not shy away from brutality, and while the violence depicted against female slaves was most prominent, worse for me was the test of the Third trial and the emotional impact the demands had on not just on the characters but on the reader as well. While some yell at Tahir "What was the point of that?!", I yell this more at the Augurs, who designed the Trials and have thus far proven to be cruel creatures, arranging torment and death as if in a game. Thus is a perfect example of excellent storytelling—I feel emotionally connected to the characters, and I hate what the Empire and Augurs are doing to them as if I am trapped right alongside them.

As Laia, Elias, and Helene become more entwined, each of their loyalties is tested and broken. While the romance aspect is certainly there for Laia and Elias, the existing bond Elias and Helene share is, I feel, stronger. Most importantly, the romance comes second to the plot, and I am more interested in the characters' continued personal development than who will end up together.

*hums* "If you had to choose, if you had to choose..."

FINE. If I had to choose, I choose Elias and Laia. I know I just said that his bond with Helene is stronger, and I am not refuting that now. Helene has been with him since they were children, has been through every horror Blackliff has made them endure throughout the years as well as in the Trials. She knows him, deeply. But. She does not know about his hatred for the Empire. He has kept this part of himself hidden from even her, his closest friend. Maybe Helene has the same inner secrets, and we will learn of them in A Torch Against the Night. I am extremely excited to get her as a new POV. 

But for now, what I see is how Elias shows Laia who he truly is, how she is the only one who he has allowed close enough in his lifetime to see past the Mask. I feel who he is deep down is Ilyas, and while Helene might be perfectly suited for Elias, Laia is the one matched for the boy who grew up on the plains and has compassion in his heart.

"Veturius smiles that knife's-edge smile. 'Look at us,' he says. 'Scholar slave and Mask, each trying to persuade the other that they're not evil. The Augurs do have a sense of humor, don't they?'"

First read: July, 2015
Latest reading: July, 2016

An Ember in the Ashes Review
Virginia DeFeo