Author: Sabaa Tahir
Series: An Ember in the Ashes, #1
The people of the Scholar Empire, once learned and prosperous, are now under the military rule of the Martial Empire. Laia and her family barely get by, with never enough to eat and in constant fear of the Empire’s persecution. When a riot, led by one of the Empire’s Masks, Martial’s most skilled and deadly soldiers, ends with her family dead and her brother imprisoned, Laia must seek out the rebels if she has any hope of saving him. Elias, in his last year at Blackcliff Military Academy, is the most skilled among his peers, but even his closest companions remain ignorant of the secret disdain he holds for the Empire. Laia and Elias’s lives are about to collide and both must choose which path to follow.
“The courtyard stands silent, empty except for me staring at a puddle of blood where a boy once stood, chilled by the knowledge that if I am not careful, I’ll end up just like him.”
Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes features a rich setting and action-packed conflict. The Martial Empire keeps the Scholars in submission by denying them education and withholding advancement in weaponry. The cost of violating these laws is death. The Masks, led by the cruel Commandant, are bereft of compassion and mercy. From their youth, they are raised to be killing machines and their loyalty to the Emperor must be without question. Riots are a daily reminded to the Scholars that there is no escaping their conquerors, that any hint of rebellion, whether real of imagined, is quickly stamped out. Despite this, an underground movement still operates in secrecy, with spies and other covert operatives waiting for the right moment to strike back at their oppressors.
Laia is not your typical heroine, at least not at first. She knows she is not brave or strong or capable of taking on the Empire, but her love for her brother Darin, the only family she has left, gives her no choice but to take dangerous risks if she ever wants to see him again. Laia endures horrifying experiences at the hands of Commandant as she works as a spy for the Resistance, who in exchange promise to save her brother. While I did get a little frustrated at times at Laia’s utter lack of confidence and her constant need to remind herself how weak she is, in the end she does learn that she is brave and strong and that the only person who can save Darin is herself.
An Ember in the Ashes is told from two perspectives, the second of which is Elias, who is destined to become a Mask. I found Elias to be the more compelling of the two, from the beginning we are introduced to a character who wishes to flee the Martial Empire. Having been raised apart from the cruel regime in his early life, Elias has never internalized the twisted views of the Empire. He still retains a sense of empathy and recognizes the injustices done to the Scholars as well his fellow students. While Laia is called to be brave in obscurity as a slave, Elias is tasked with accepting the notoriety of being from a prominent family. His relationship with the Commandant is complicated and reinforces just how brutal the Empire’s leaders can be. His relationship with his best friend Helene exemplifies the ruthlessness of the Empire; while both wish to be loyal to the other, in a nation that values resolute obedience, this may not be possible.
An Ember in the Ashes is never boring with characters taking on unexpected battles and myths, once thought to be only stories, are awakened as each character fights to survive. The romance in the book was probably my least favorite thing about it, as it felt a little too much like musical chairs.