First in a series
By Sabaa Tahir
Available now from Razorbill (Penguin Random House)
AN EMBER IN THE ASHES has been getting a massive push from Penguin Random House. The book was a pretty easy sell, for me. I was sold on the Roman Empire-esque setting and the heroine being a spy for the resistance, hiding out as a slave at the school where Martial Empire soldiers are taught.
AN EMBER IN THE ASHES is told between dual points of view. Laia alternates with Elias, a student soldier who plans on deserting right after graduation. I actually found myself more drawn to Elias' point of view. He has a lot going on, because he's been chosen as one of four candidates to be the next emperor. He also has a complicated relationship with his mother, the Commandant, and his best friend Helene, who is also in the running to become emperor. Beside his action-packed storyline, Laia's seems somewhat wan. Her goal is to earn the support she needs to break her brother out of prison. But she happens to be not much as a spy and mostly alternates between getting in trouble and making friends with a fellow slave.
Love triangle haters should avoid AN EMBER IN THE ASHES. There are two intersecting triangles: Elias must choose between Helene and Laia, and Laia must choose between Helene and a resistance fighter who barely has enough characterization to be even a faux love interest. I can see why Laia likes Elias: he's not only handsome, but also surprisingly principled and tries to make her life easier when he can. Elias' attraction to Laia actually made me like him less, because it doesn't seem to have much of a reason beyond she looks good in a dress. Given how much of AN EMBER IN THE ASHES hinges on their feelings for each other, I wish Elias had been shown being attracted to Laia for things other than her looks.
I do wish more history of the world had been seeded throughout the book. For instance, Laia is a Scholar, an underclass made up of a people the Martials conquered. The name of the people instantly becomes interesting when you learn they're forbidden from learning to read. Do they have tales of knowledge lost? Secret oral traditions? What sort of learning made them famed as Scholars the way Martials are known for fighting with scims? AN EMBER IN ASHES focuses almost entirely on Martial life, which does make some sense given that it is set in a Martial school.
Sensitive readers will want to note that in addition to violence there are a large number of rape threats in the story. They make sense in context, but it is very prevalent and a bit wearying how much it gets mentioned. I did enjoy AN EMBER IN THE ASHES despite its flaws. It's a very cinematic novel with a compelling hero. I also really liked Helene, who kind of baffles her friend Elias even though he knows not to underestimate her. I'm excited to read the sequel and find out what happens next.