An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
When Laia’s brother is taken prisonner by the Martial Empire, leaving her alone in the world, her only recourse is to ask help from the Resistance. It turns out the Resistance doesn’t give out help for free, however, and she accepts a dangerous mission in exchange for her brother’s freedom: become a slave to the notoriously sadistic Commander of Blackcliff Military Academy and spy for the Resistance.
Elias is a student of Blackcliff, in the last stages of his training as an elite Martial warrior: a Mask. Disgusted by the violent existence he will be forced to lead as one of the Empire’s enforcers, he plans to desert on the night of his graduation. But things don’t go as planned, and it seems Elias might be just as much a prisonner of destiny as he is of the academy’s black walls.
This book was a bit of a weird one for me, mostly because it took me so long to get into it: the first few chapters left me nothing more than mildly intrigued, and it wasn’t until the halfway point that I began to feel any emotional investment in the characters. And yet I didn’t dislike the book, and I would be hard-pressed to find anything technically wrong with it. The characters are relatable, the story starts on a hook, the world-building is okay, and there’s a nice element of mystery tying everything together and leading into the next installment of the franchise.
If I had to identify the exact reason why it took me so long to care about the characters, I would say that it’s partly an issue with the pacing and partly with the setting.
The story does begin on a hook, and one that moves at breakneck speed: we are barely introduced to Laia and her brother Darin that Martials storm their home, kill their grandparents and arrest Darin for treason. Laia barely escapes, and find herself stumbling through the sewers looking for the Resistance. Her guiding motivation from this point on, her main driving force, is to get Darin back. So strong is this motivation that it blinds her to everything that doesn’t involve saving her brother. And yet… we don’t know her brother. We barely spend a page with him before the raid. We don’t know anything of Laia’s life before it fell apart aside from a few snippets she shares with the readers after the fact, and so it’s very hard to have any real sense of her loss.
The other issue is the setting. Most of the story takes place inside the walls of Blackcliff, only very rarely stepping outside. This place is claustrophobic and oppressive, as both Laia and Elias find themselves imprisonned inside in two very different ways. Keeping all the action tied to this one place is a very effective device, trapping the readers in the same claustrophobic space as the characters, yet it ultimately hurts the story, at least in the beginning. We learn very early on that Elias can’t be himself in Blackcliff, can’t show his true feelings, for fear of being punished or killed. He longs for freedom, for a life outside the walls, and yet… what does life outside Blackcliff even look like? We don’t know. Laia lost everything in her life before coming to Blackcliff and wants to get it back, yet we know very little of what that life entailed. We are trapped in this place with the characters yet we know nothing of the world outside, and while this makes us desire freedom as much as they do, it renders the stakes and their motivations quite vague, kind of like Belle who wants nothing more than “adventure in the great wide somewhere”.
This is where we get to the scene that fixes all this, and the point at which I really started getting invested in the story: the Moon festival. Without getting into spoilers, this is the scene where we finally get to leave Blackcliff behind for a few chapters and really see what’s at stake here. We see what Laia’s life would have been like if the raid hadn’t happened, we see Elias as his life might be if he succeeds in leaving Blackcliff, or even what it might have been if he hadn’t been forced to join the academy at all. We get to see the city outside Blackcliff, not just its sewer system. We finally get to see our two leads interact outside of the awkward slave/master rapport they had previously developped. This entire scene is a much-needed breath of fresh air, and it’s beautiful.
After this scene, I enjoyed the book much more. I only wish we’d had something like it much sooner.
The story leaves us with more than enough loose ends to justify a sequel, what with all the prophecy being bandied about, the Empire being turned on its end and our main characters finally getting what they’ve wanted – just not exactly in the way they’d expected. As it is, An Ember in the Ashes is a thouroughly enjoyable read despite its flaws, and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing where the story will take us next.