An Ember in the Ashes is Sabaa Tahir’s debut, the first in the Ember Quartet. It tells the story of a girl, Laia, a Scholar living under the violent, oppressive rule of the Martial Empire. After her brother is arrested for treason and her grandparents are killed, she finds the shadowy Scholar Resistance, a group supposedly working to bring down the Martials and who seem responsible for her brother’s imprisonment. After finding them, she uses her best and only bargaining chip—that her parents, years dead, were the former, formidable heads of the Resistance. The current leader agrees to break her brother out of prison on one condition: Laia must spy on the Commandant of Blackcliff Academy, which is the dangerous school for Martial soldiers.
Meanwhile, a boy named Elias is on the verge of graduating from Blackcliff—and on the verge of defecting. But his plans are ruined when he is named an Aspirant in the Trials, a series of tests that will determine the new Emperor of the Martial Empire. Fearing what might happen if he stays or if he goes, he remains to see the Trials through. Then he meets Laia, and the two become intertwined as the machinations of those in charge—both of the Martials and of the Resistance—set bewildering plans in motion.
I was unsure about this, after reading several less-than-stellar young adult dystopia/fantasy books. However, a friend likes this series, so I decided to try it—but with low expectations, admittedly. Luckily, these expectations were surpassed in most cases.
The world-building is not as good as that of The Hunger Games (an exemplar of the genre) but far better than that of Divergent (a low bar to set, honestly). Ember is not flawless, but cohesive enough that I wasn’t constantly poking holes in it (no Dauntless vs. Amity vs. whatever nonsense). However, especially at the beginning, Tahir does a lot of info-dumping about her Middle Eastern/Asian and Roman-inspired world. That would be okay if things were shown rather than told, but that’s not the case. I was frustrated that the characters felt the need to describe how their society works, rather than having things be revealed through action or plot. But since this is a debut, I cut Tahir some slack. And she improved as the book progressed; the second half, for me, was more entertaining than the first.
The Trials take up a sizable section, and honestly are pretty unoriginal. They’re the Triwizard Tournament with the violence of the Hunger Games. There are also elements of Divergent’s “fear landscapes,” but at least this universe has magic to explain it rather than vague pseudoscience. I didn’t love the Trial scenes, though the action is well-written and some things Elias goes through, particularly during the third Trial, hit me.
The characterization isn’t bad, though could have more depth. Laia and Elias are fine protagonists, though neither are especially unique among the pantheon of YA mains. The side characters are good for the most part. The Commandant stands out as a sadistic but mysterious villain. Helene was well-written but annoying—she’s that type of “strong female” who looks down on femininity after being immersed in an all-male environment. She’d probably judge a man for showing emotion and would tell him to “man up” (ugh). Even ignoring the fact that her society has brainwashed her into thinking Scholars are lesser, I didn’t like her much. One of my favorites ended up being Keenan, Resistance member/Laia’s handler.
Overall, the plot is decent, despite its use of common YA tropes. I was interested the whole time, even during the Trials. Laia’s spying is high-stakes and intense, and the web of distrust she navigates is interesting. And as I mentioned, the writing improves in the second half, and the climax is exciting.
In the end, An Ember in the Ashes was a pleasant surprise. It isn’t perfect, but the characters are more than decent, as are the writing and world-building. Especially for a debut, this is an enjoyable book. I’d even say this is one of the better YA books I’ve read. I’m interested enough that I’ll probably read the other books at some point.
Overall rating: 7.8/10