An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir arrived in my mailbox last year, but I always felt hesitant with picking it up due to the hype surrounding it. In my experience, when a book (or anything really), has a huge boom in popularity, I tend to stray away from it becuse I don’t want to be disappointed. Most of the time, the hype never lives up to the expeactations created by it. Nonetheless, when I found a fantastic deal for the paperback copy of the sequel novel, A Torch Against the Night, I decided it was time to read this book. I’m sad to say that the book did not live up to its hype, by far.
An Ember in the Ashes revolves around two characters. The first is young girl named Laia, who is a Scholar, which is a poor, oppressed race. One evening due to specific circumstances, the Empire’s soldiers bust into her home and take her brother prisoner under charges of treason. Desperate to save her only family member, she seeks out the Resistance in an effort to obtain help for his rescue. The Resistance is willing to give her aid, but only if she infiltrates the Empire’s military school as a spy to assist them in their fight. The second character is a boy named Elias, who’s the finest soldier in the Empire’s most elite military academy. Secretly, he is an unwilling component in the Empire’s brutal reign, and wishes for his freedom. When Elias and Laia finally meet, they realise that their fates are intertwined in ways they never could have imagined.
Fear can be good, Laia. It can keep you alive. But don’t let it control you. Don’t let it sow doubts within you. When the fear takes over, use the only thing more powerful, more indestructible, to fight it: your spirit. Your heart.
Mixed feelings arise when I think about this book. There are plenty of things that I found to be very interesting and quite good in regards to the writing and the characters, but there’s also a nice chunk that felt immensely incomplete, or lacklustre, most specifically when it comes to the fantasy elements.
I will confess openly that I read a lot of adult fantasy, so the level of world-building that I am used to is very intricate. As such, when I pick up a book with fantasy in it’s genre, I expect a certain level of said world-building to help immerse me into a unique and separate universe. One of the reasons that I adore fantasy so much is because it works as escapism for me, taking me out of my reality whenever I need to check out for a little while.
An Ember in the Ashes had almost no world-building to it at all. We are told in brief snippets that the Scholars are a race of people who once thrived, but were beaten down by the Empire and made to be submissive in their reign. Through contemplations and minor plot progression points, we learn a little bit about what made the Scholars a unique and prosperous community. But it is never enough to truly set them apart from the other races within the book. Their most distinguishing quality is that they are oppressed and usually forced into slavery. As an introduction novel to a series, whether it’s a trilogy or saga, the book needed an ample amount of details. These two people–the Empire and the Scholars–are the main focus of the universe. Their fight is intense and very violent. Small paragraphs of contextual references is not going to be enough to satiate the desire to learn more about them and why they hate one another so much. What made the Empire commit the atrocities that it commits? What’s the motive?
There’s another race of people that are tribal in nature, who seem to be inspired by South East Asian and North African cultures, but apart from the names of the people and their tribes, we know virtually nothing else. They are described to be darker skinned and well-versed in the ways of survival in the most extreme sense, as well as capable warriors, and that’s all. Much of what I gathered about them is all through passing commentary and observations made by others, which, once again, wasn’t definitive at all. I was disappointed by the inherent lack of information on this community because they are the ones that intrigued me the most out of everyone and everything else.
There are a couple of Urdu words that are used in the novel to describe particular things, but unless you are familiar with the language and don’t mind inferring their meaning through actions and situations, their significance will go completely over your head. Personally, as an Urdu speaker, I liked this bit. It felt like a creative way to add some originality to an essentially clichéd narrative. However, my main issue is that I want to know the lore behind them and where they originated. These things, which seem miniscule in nature, are actual key in world-building. Putting this aside, there’s not much lore or history offered in the first instalment at all. I felt unsatisfied and the story came off has being rather punctured while I read onwards.
The romance was painfully predictable. Initially, I felt a love triangle coming on, but I was surprised when it turned into a love square. While I was extremely sceptical about this rectangular situation, I will admit that it was written much better than I expected. The emotions that all four of these people feel is flawed, realistic, and something to empathise with. Nevertheless, every single scenario that formed this square was sensationally overplayed. I wholeheartedly believe that an avenue aside from romance between Laia and another character would have suited the story much better if it was developed as a bond of trust and friendship. There aren’t a lot of friendships in this book that are simply friendships, or that don’t end in irreparable despair. A good old-fashioned bond of friendship would have absolutely wonderful. Not everyone likes to read about people falling in love with each other all of the fucking time. It’s a trope that royally annoys me to no avail, particularly when it’s unnecessary.
As I’ve mentioned throughout this review, the plot in and of itself is clichéd. You have two sides who hate each other with a bloody passion, whatever their reasoning. Then you have a protagonist who’s forced to infiltrate the enemy to save a loved one. The protagonist undergoes “self-discovery” through their experiences and feels they’re ready to conquer whatever they must to succeed. Even the finale with it’s mild-tempered cliffhanger was unoriginal. This specific type of story is not a bad story to tell. There is a reason that it works and appeals to many, many different kinds of readers across the spectrum, notably where fantasy is concerned. The ones that do go on to succeed have at least one commodity that sets them apart. For An Ember in the Ashes it’s the simple fact that this was written for young adult readers. The narrative is not one that I’ve seen in YA fantasy literature before, but it is something that I’ve seen in abundance with adult fantasy literature. Everything else in the book that has potential to make this a visionary in the fantasy genre is severely underdeveloped.
Regardless of all the issues that I found with the novel, there is one thing that I cannot deny: it was bloody addicting. The foundation and formulation may have needed a lot of polishing, but the writing itself was damn fucking good. The pacing was slow at first. It takes you about 100 pages to get all of the players situated to where they need to be to get stuff happening, but very quickly afterwards I found myself flipping from one page to the next with a starving and almost carnal interest. Laia and Elias are rather excellent in evoking emotions and getting you invested with their predicaments. I found their development as individuals from the beginning until the very end to be beautifully fluid, equal, and engaging. You can see how the struggles that Laia has help change her as a person, help to make her stronger. She’s not perfect. There’s a lot of self-doubt and worry, but those are flaws that can connect her to the people outside of the book. Elias is an angry, bitter bastard at times, but there are justifications that you can’t help but agree with, or understand even if you don’t quite concur. There’s also plenty of room for more growth, which will be beneficial in future instalments.
The tension was somewhat non-existent for the first one-third to almost one-half of the novel. People are being tortured and killed, yet there wasn’t any atmosphere to it until quite a bit later. When this tension does begin to generate, it’s innately insidious. A cloud of dread beings to veil you onwards, building up a decent amount of suspense. Being submerged in the characters’ plights definitely help out in that regard. This apprehension is another facet that drives you to keep reading until the last page, and I relished it.
Overall, An Ember in the Ashes is banal in premise and execution, but the writing style was excellent and the character development of our protagonists are beautifully fleshed out. For a novel within the fantasy genre (young adult or not), I need a lot more world-building to take this book seriously as a fantasy novel. It would have been utterly spectacular with added layers of dimension to the all of the characters, the races of people, and the universe as a whole, setting it apart from all of the other narratives that follow the same basic structures, or tropes. For a debut novel, however, I enjoyed it a great deal.
3.25 moon cakes outta 5!
TRIGGER WARNING: References to rape. Scenes of sexual assault. Scenes of physical torture.